I was first introduced to pilates in 2006. I took a class with Cynthia Shipely, an experienced pilates instructor and a black woman. I fell in love instantly—even after just one class, my body felt so much stronger and better aligned. I started attending Shipely’s class regularly, and soon she strongly encouraged me to consider becoming a teacher. A few years later I became certified in mat pilates and then completed the comprehensive certification, which covers all pilates equipment (like the Reformer, tower, and barrels).
Last May, after teaching pilates for 10 years, I started Black Girl Pilates, a revolutionary community built to open discussions about the lack of representation within the pilates method. After writing about my group for a website, I received backlash, with some claiming on a pilates forum that my group is racist and divisive because it is exclusively for black women instructors.
Anyone who sees it that way is unfortunately missing the point—that, as black women who practice and appreciate pilates, we need a community that helps us feel supported and understood, especially in a fitness environment that’s predominantly white.
When you rarely see anyone who looks like you, it can be disheartening, lonely, and oftentimes frustrating.
When I was getting certified, I was one of two black apprentices in a group of 12 students; one of our teachers was a black woman. Once I became a teacher it was apparent that there was scarcity of black instructors and students throughout the pilates community. Even after 10 years of teaching in studios and a gym, I would estimate that the percentage of black instructors and students I’ve come across is less than 10 percent.
In magazines, blogs, and social media, pilates is often represented as an exercise method specifically for white people. Because of this, many black women may not know that the history of pilates included anyone who looks like us. As I started researching the method’s history, I was surprised to find out that one of the pilates elders (who trained under Joseph Pilates himself) was a black woman named Kathy Stanford Grant. Grant’s contributions to pilates were so above and beyond that there is a specific pilates program named after her. It became extremely important to me that I show other black women that not only is pilates for everyone, but it is also for black people and taught by black women who are some of the brightest, most talented, and most amazing women in the world.
Black Girl Pilates is a safe space for black women to come together and help each other through our shared experiences.
Racism is showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races or believing that a particular race is superior to another. My group isn’t doing that, and is by no means trying to be superior to any other. Its purpose is to be a safe space where we can talk about issues that are specific to our experience as black women.
For example, imagine having to go into a studio or gym where the clientele and staff are predominately white after Charlottesville, the Sandra Bland shooting, or even the presidential election, as a black instructor or student. Many of the women in my group (including myself) experienced fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness after such events, but didn’t feel that we could safely and sincerely express our feelings in the places we frequented.
I started Black Girl Pilates out of a longing for support from women who look like me and to discuss very difficult topics like white privilege, white supremacy, and micro-aggressions, and how these affect us as we exist in very white spaces. My Black Girl Pilates group provides that safe space to talk about these feelings as well as pilates, entrepreneurship, and how we can bring pilates to our community.
It also gives us a chance to see the representation that we do not see in studios, magazines, and online platforms.
When I first began the group, I found 50 black women who were pilates instructors—but only after a long day of research and assistance from a few instructors I already knew. We have since grown to 180-plus members representing the U.S. and abroad. Many of these women are master instructors within their certification programs, workshop leaders, and entrepreneurs. How wonderful it is for other black women to see that we teach pilates and that pilates is for them as well.
Our group has had a positive effect already. Many black women have reached out on our Instagram page to request black instructors in their specific areas. Others have simply wanted to know more about pilates. This year we started the Black Girl Pilates Tribe group on the Black Girl Pilates Facebook page to connect with black women (and men) who are pilates enthusiasts—not just fellow instructors—so that they can speak directly with certified instructors, ask questions, and receive personal support. And since our inception, Zola Williams, a member of the Black Girl Pilates group, became the first black female pilates instructor cover model for Pilates Style magazine. Although this was a huge step, there is still so much more work to do on many different platforms in order to improve representation.
We’ve made progress in this past year, and I believe that Black Girl Pilates will continue to be a catalyst for change in the pilates community.
Black Girl Pilates will turn 1 in May, and as the year progresses I anticipate seeing many of the women in my group attending conferences, participating in workshops, expanding their online platforms, writing articles, and appearing on the covers of magazines. It is my hope that many of these platforms will recognize the importance of representation and how it can change the way the world sees pilates. Being “included” isn’t enough—inclusion means someone else made the choice to do so and can revoke it at any time. We deserve seats at the table as leaders, decision makers, and influencers in the pilates community.
Sonja R. Herbert lives in New York where she is a pilates, fitness, and lifestyle coach and a former social worker. She is the founder of Commando Fitness Collective, Black Girl Fit & Well, and the Black Girl Pilates community on Instagram and Facebook. Sonja is comprehensively certified in pilates, and also holds TRX Level 1 and Kettlebell Concepts Level 1 certifications.
This content was originally published here.