- The Pilates Pelvis:Racial Implications of the Immobile Hips
Like many dancers, I came to know the benefits of the exercise system commonly known as “Pilates” because of an injury I sustained while dancing.1 Although physical therapists treated me for acute hip and lower back injuries, my body required strength and conditioning beyond what physical therapy could offer; therefore I sought Pilates to aid my recovery. During this process, the Pilates classes introduced me to a bodily education I had not yet experienced in my dancing career. I learned about varying degrees of internal and external rotation, neutral pelvis, core strength, and resistance training, which offered a valuable bodily knowledge. After months of working to re-strengthen, stabilize, and re-educate my body’s habits, I improved my spinal health and increased the functionality of my hip. That was nearly thirteen years ago, and, since then, I have been certified by three Pilates organizations, and continue to practice and teach Pilates on a regular basis.2 Early in my Pilates education, I was interested in its rehabilitative benefits; I shadowed physical therapists, enrolled in anatomy and physiology courses, studied dance kinesiology, and became determined to understand the moving body from a kinesiological and biomechanical perspective. My interest in Pilates focused on the science of the moving body and how Pilates could assist in postural health.
The physical benefits of Pilates, as well as the pleasure that people experience doing Pilates, are clear to those who teach and practice the form.3 For example, students gain awareness of their movements, posture, and muscular imbalances or deficiencies; improve balance and flexibility; feel refreshed and regenerated after practice; and become more aware of their overall physical health. Over the past fifteen to twenty years, Pilates has garnered substantial attention within scientific, biomechanical, and kinesiological research.4 While scientifically oriented studies utilize biomechanical movement analysis to reflect the rehabilitative benefits of Pilates, I suggest that there are other intellectual lenses and theoretical apparatuses to understand and interpret the bodily effects of Pilates exercises. Pilates-based studies tend to overlook its construction as a socially constituted and historically specific movement culture. At present, the lack of attention to race in Pilates-based studies serves to normalize, mask, and perpetuate how Pilates is socially and racially coded. This deficiency in Pilates research thus far preserves its legacy as a universal movement system and works to [End Page 57] depoliticize the form. I therefore examine Pilates, through the lens of race, to expose what is not normally articulated in Pilates pedagogy. The Pilates community and dance studies benefit from recovering race in Pilates, since it illuminates how embodied behaviors of certain races are normalized and privileged over others. By examining how particular movements of the body are internalized, kinesthetic methods of understanding race expose the culturally situated values in Pilates and push against its veneer of neutrality.
In this article, I explore how the teaching practices of the hips, spine, and core, as commonly explained in Pilates educational manuals, reinforce behaviors of a “noble-class” and racially “white” aesthetic. Central to my study is the troubling notion of white racial superiority and, specifically, the colonizing, prejudicial, and denigrating mentality found in the primacy of whiteness and its embodied behaviors. Although “white” is a theoretically loaded term and far from an innocent cultural construct, I seek to illuminate how perceived kinesthetic understandings of race in the body may be normalized. To assist me, I employ Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s seminal works, The Black Dancing Body (2003) and Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance (1998), and I examine how dance forms like ballet are sets of bodily knowledges for understanding the racialization of Pilates.
I realize the potential danger of suggesting that certain movements of the pelvis, in particular Pilates exercises, represent “white” ways of moving, since doing so reduces, simplifies, and stereotypes the racial and cultural embodiments of white people and people of color.5 Whiteness studies pioneer and scholar Ruth Frankenberg states, “To call Americans of European descent ‘white’ in any celebratory fashion is almost inevitably, in the present political moment, a white supremacist act, an act of backlash. In fact...