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Why is Teaching Pilates Like Improv?

You often hear the advice from Pilates mentors and educators to ‘go with the flow’ and ‘cue the body you see in front of you’. The first time that I have come across the real meaning of cuing the body in front of you was teaching my first mat class. It was a one-to-one class and I had prepared a repertoire for the client – a beginner program which I thought it would be a good one to assess her movement in the first class. 

I had to abandon the planned program shortly after starting the class. The client turned out to be an elderly lady with a lot of limitation in terms of range of movement and previous injury, and I learned very quickly that I had to drop what I had planned, and start to improvise on the spot to make it work for her. I landed up not following what I had planned at all. 

You would think that I would have learned a lesson or two for my first studio apprentice teaching. Again, I had prepared a full program, and even decided to rehearse some cues for the exercises so that I was really prepared. I had the order of exercises prepared and had in my mind how the class would flow. It turned our that there was no way I could follow the order of exercises that I had prepared because the studio was overbooked, and I did not have access to all the equipment at the start of the class! Again, I had to improvise on the spot. 

Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. That’s why teaching Pilates is like improv. In fact, I feel that Pilates instructors can benefit a lot by going to an improv course – which I am going to put on my list of courses to take as part of my Pilates journey. 

The truth of the matter is there is only this much you can prepare. It’s good to have a plan, an idea of the exercises that you are going to go through. That’s what the programming that you learn at your course is good for. It is at the end of the day just a guide and not cast in stone. What is most important for an instructor, is to know the strategy of each exercise, and to understand the purpose of each of them and what they can do for your client. You then have work with what you have in front of you, and improvise to make it work for the client. Another favorite mantra of mine – be in the moment! 

This is a great article that I found that talks about ‘Improvisation in Pilates’ and how it’s strange that these two words are put together given that Classical Pilates by definition is the strict adherence to the exercises and order of exercises created by Joseph Pilates, and improvisation by definition is unplanned and creative expression.

Pilates teaching and practice is completely improvisational. There are so many factors that you don’t have control over on the day of the class but with that, it comes with the opportunity to improvise every second of the session.

Let’s start with you the teacher. You show up at a class feeling different every time. As Pilates is a journey, you bring different knowledge that you have picked up along the way, and pass that on to the clients either teaching in a group or private class. It is not possible that you feel the same every day, and at every session that you are teaching.

Then your client – he or she comes to the session with different variables each day. The level of energy he or she has, how his or her body is functioning, or how present he or she is on the day. No two clients are the same, and they respond to the exercises that you give them differently. Even the same client may respond to the same exercise differently on different days, depending on how his/her body feels on that day. There is always a need to pick a modification or variation, progression or regression based on the client’s needs for the day. Some cues may not work with a particular client, and others may respond better to tactile or visual cueing.

The advice is to work within what you have and you create. I love this quote from the article: “It’s up to you to find the beautiful newness in the moment! That means the technique of the exercise stays the same, but with who you are today and who the client is today, you create the cues and teach in the moment!”

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