Until 1990 there were no Pilates studios in San Francisco. That year a former dancer named Madeline Black arrived from New York City and opened the first one, in the Dog Patch section of Potrero Hill. She had graduated from Skidmore College in 1979 with a degree in P.E. and dance, and spent time in Minneapolis during the 80’s dancing with the New Dance Ensemble and the Nancy Hauser Dance Company. “Minneapolis was a surprisingly happening place,” she told me.
It was after her move from Minneapolis to New York that she discovered Pilates. A choreographer named Dan Wagoner turned her on to a book by Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen called The Pilates Method – Physical and Mental Conditioning. It covered the mat work, not the exercises on the apparatus, but Madeline was intrigued. (Billed as “the original Pilates book,” not counting Joe’s books, of course, it’s being reprinted in September and will be available on Amazon.)
Madeline began making the rounds in the Pilates studios. “I was one of the few dancers,” she marvels, “to enter the Pilates world with no injuries.” At the same time she was beginning to take an interest in what we now call movement science, blending her knowledge of dance, anatomy, kinesiology, and this thing called Pilates.
A short list of people she’s studied or worked with reads like a Who’s Who: the first-generation teachers Eve Gentry and Romana Kryzanowska, teacher and kinesiologist Jean-Claude West, dance and movement educator Irene Dowd, Dr. Tom Hendrickson, physical therapist and educator Marika Molnar, anatomy expert and teacher Gil Hedley, and Juliu Horvath, creator of the Gyrotonic® method.
While in New York, Madeline remained in the dance world, taking on pick up gigs, teaching classes and working with and training other dancers.
She was an avid runner also, and in the evenings she worked in restaurants. Being on her feet all day and into the evening began to wear her down, and one day she saw an ad for something called a personal trainer, a new concept at the time, at the East Side Sports Medicine Center. She got the job and began a new career, putting clients through conventional exercises, as well as the mat repertoire for core strength. Her teaching skills continued to develop; she wanted to do more than just give exercises – Madeline learned how to “see” the way different bodies move, to recognize abnormalities and improper movement patterns, and to correct them with not only movement education, but sometimes manual (hands-on) therapy.
It was not Madeline’s wish to stay in New York. She had always wanted to settle in California, and she relocated to San Francisco to study with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Through the organization, she gained access to a rehab center at St. Francis Hospital in the city. Their equipment included Pilates apparatus and she was able to practice regularly. She needed a job, and realized that being a trainer here would be a perfect fit, but there was a hiring freeze in place at the time, and Madeline had to think of a Plan B. “It was a case of one door closing and another opening,” she told me, and this is when she decided to open her studio. She originally named it Madeline’s Body Of Work, shortening it later to A Body Of Work.
She did no advertising. “People just started coming,” Madeline says. She added more equipment. She started hiring teachers. The studio needed more room and moved to Noe Valley, then to Union Street near the Presidio.
Among her clients were Danny Glover, his father, his wife and his daughter. Pilates was catching on.
Madeline was living in the city as a renter. Even then rates were high, and she was ready for home ownership. In 1993 she bought a house in the wine country town of Sonoma, north of San Francisco, and Madeline commuted to her studio.
She bought a Pilates reformer and installed it in the house for her own practice. Shortly after, a local woman approached her and asked if she would give her sessions. “I don’t know how she found me; I didn’t put out a shingle or anything,” Madeline says, and agreed to train her. The woman told a friend, and another friend, and the client list grew. She cut back her schedule at the studio, and more Sonoma clients came. At the time, Sharon Stone spent summers in Sonoma and was a regular; also Tommy Smothers, who lived just to the north. There was space in the house, so a Cadillac and a Wunda chair were added. She reduced her commuting days again.
Finally, in 1998, Madeline sold A Body Of Work to one of her early teachers, Jean Sullivan, who still owns it today, under the same name; it’s now at a prime location in the Presidio. Madeline soon had a full schedule working from her house, and she was scheduling clients by herself the old-fashioned way – by phone and a paper calendar (there was no MindBody at the time). One of her local clients, Jane Siegel, convinced Madeline to hire her as an office manager and scheduler so Madeline could focus on teaching.
In 2003 Madeline opened another studio, on a main drag in Sonoma, and called it Studio M. She brought Jane with her and gave her an office. There was room for more reformers and a second Cadillac, and Gyrotonic® towers were added. She hired teachers and trained them in what she now calls the Madeline Black method, integrating manual work with keen observation and encouraging intelligent movement customized for individual bodies. She believes a teacher’s intuition plays an important part. (Madeline once told me not everything she does necessarily has to be based on science.) The studio held numerous workshops hosted by other well-known teachers, including Cara Reeser, Alan Herdman and Rebekah Rotstein. Sonoma is a small town, but the studio is firmly on the Pilates map.
A couple of years ago Madeline sold Studio M to a protege, one of her most dedicated teachers, Sue Aslin. Madeline still considers it her home studio, and she sees clients there when she isn’t traveling. She still uses it to give classes and workshops. (A disclaimer: I’m one of the teachers at Studio M, hired by Sue after she took it over. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Madeline for a few years now, taking her workshops and teaching my own clients alongside her; the thrill of working in the same room as Madeline Black is like being invited to toss a football with Tom Brady.)
I’m writing this in August of 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting the health and fitness community. When we spoke on the phone for this article Madeline told me that she’s been thinking about the informal, but established, hierarchy we have accepted in the Pilates world: There are the revered first-generation teachers, and then those calling themselves second-generation teachers – those who were trained, in whatever capacity, by first-generation teachers. There is too much categorization in our industry, Madeline believes, and we should stop labeling teachers according to generations and age groups. “I’ve learned from, and been influenced by, all groups of teachers,” she told me, “those in their forties, even millennials.” She can certainly claim to be a second-generation teacher, but refuses to do so. Constantly evolving, rather than being stuck in a category, she believes, is much more desirable. Madeline would like to be known as a perennial, learning to adapt and continuing to thrive.
Currently Madeline is adapting nicely to online teaching and education. She recently began a trio of teacher workshops called Immersive Online Training. The second edition of her book, Centered, is in progress (if you’re a teacher, by all means you should own a copy). She continues to offer various free webinars on Zoom, usually monthly, sometimes in collaboration with other teachers, and is beginning a monthly online offering called Movement Masterclasses for Professionals. She has classes and workshops on Pilates Anytime and Fusion Pilates Edu. Of course, all the information you need will be on her website, madelineblack.com , and you can like or follow Madeline Black Pilates on Facebook or Instagram.