Andy Ward

Fitness

My Brief, Painful Career As a Pilates Instructor

I tried my best. But I just couldn’t find my inner cheerleader.

In the spring of 2014, I lost my job. After nearly a decade of my predictions that “They could shut this thing down any day,” they shut the thing down. The thing being a website called DailyCandy, where I was an editor. I was out of work and heartbroken, but the severance was generous, and if it had to end, it ended in the best possible way. My gravy train had pulled into the station. I would be OK, but eventually I would have to look for a new ride.

One afternoon, though, when I was panicky about my unemployment, a trusted adviser suggested I meet him at a bar. I ordered a glass of wine and implored across the table: “Just tell me what to do!” This smart man told me to enjoy the rare good fortune of having a paycheck but not a job. He told me to go home and relax. I liked that plan.

Lush morning naps and long afternoon walks consumed the next couple of months. In between, I made lists of what I liked and what was trending, aiming for the intersection of love and money. That’s how I decided to become a Pilates instructor.

I’d been introduced to the strengthening and toning regimen created by a man but perfect for a woman through DailyCandy, and though I initially hated every moment, there was no denying that it worked. In a matter of months, Pilates did for me what a year with a personal trainer had not: I was slimmer and stronger. At Bodybar Fitness, a Pilates knockoff in Travis Walk, I became a convert and a regular, preaching the Pilates gospel to anyone who would listen.

I’d been told to get my energy up, so I sucked down triple-shot caramel macchiatos with extra whip before class. Despite my earnest efforts, though, the feedback remained dismal.

As luck would have it, Bodybar had a teacher training class coming up. I plopped down $500 to register and also enrolled in two certification programs at Classic Pilates. Those cost $550 each. Without an exercise background beyond my year as a student, I felt I needed not only credentials but also a foundation in human movement. This wasn’t just a dalliance for me; I was serious about changing careers and wanted to be legit.

I devoted the summer to my endeavors. The Bodybar training took place on Saturdays and Sundays for two months. During that time I learned the ins and outs of a draconian-looking device called a reformer, which has a movable bed, adjustable springs, ropes and pullies, and a metal tower with a trapeze. It is a formidable opponent invented to train professional boxers, and it always appears ready for a fight.

Attending and observing classes ate up another half dozen hours each week. On afternoons when the studio was empty, I dropped in to practice my moves on the reformer and tell imaginary students through a tiny microphone attached to my head to “pull your belly button in and up.” At home, I pored over a thick binder filled with anatomy illustrations and sequences of exercises designed to fatigue different muscle groups, memorizing the locations and functions of the iliopsoas, transverse abdominis, and serratus posterior. I filled notebooks with alignment notes and breathing cues. I taught a free class to the public before teaching one that served as my final exam.

When I’d finished all that, I spent two three-day weekends at Classic Pilates, where I learned to perform and direct set sequences of floor exercises, fake-taught my fellow students, and passed both practical and written tests.

I felt pretty good about all of it. But once I was released to teach, the uppity Uptowners showed no mercy.

Prepared but nervous, I led my first Bodybar class of a dozen Lululemon-clad women through 50 minutes of lunge-and-lift, hug-a-tree, feet-in-straps, and plank-to-pike on a Monday evening. It was late summer, but that wasn’t why I was sweating. It was harder than I thought it would be to call spring changes, move around the room, and remind people to breathe. When class ended, I knew I hadn’t impressed anyone, but I felt I’d done fine.

I taught a couple more classes—including one in which a woman stopped in the middle of a glute-firming regimen, looked at me, rolled her eyes, and walked out—before getting a call from the chirpy young manager and SMU grad student in charge of the Bodybar teachers. She wanted to talk to me about my “low energy.” My technical knowledge was on point, she said, but students had complained that my emotional intensity was lacking. She banished me to early morning classes in Plano, where, I was told, “students are less advanced” and “people are nicer.”

I was not even a little bit discouraged by this. I was coming at my new career with zero experience and willing to work my way up from the burbs. If I needed to wake at 4:30 am to shower and dress and drive up Central Expressway in the dark to earn $30 per class, I was committed. I know what it means to pay your dues.

Morning after morning, I attempted to channel the actual Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader who was a fellow instructor.

I’d been told by the manager to praise and empathize with my students, and so I repeated phrases I’d heard other teachers use, like “Great work! Hang in there!” and “I know it burns! Stay with it!” I’d been told to get my energy up, so I sucked down triple-shot caramel macchiatos with extra whip before class. Despite my earnest efforts, though, the feedback remained dismal. Students reported that I didn’t move fast enough, didn’t speak loudly enough, and that my ’80s playlist didn’t suit their mood. One morning, a “nice” middle-aged lady walked in, looked me right in the eye, and said in a tone usually reserved for dog poo on a shoe: “Not you!” Though it may have been true that Plano women didn’t have the strength and stamina of their Uptown counterparts, they were not nicer.

A week or so later, Chirpy Manager had a suggestion. As we sat knee to knee in the studio’s juice bar, she leaned forward and said, “I will help you find your inner cheerleader.” I swallowed a laugh and replied, “I doubt it.”

Nevertheless, morning after morning, I attempted to channel the actual Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who was a fellow instructor. I did my best to bounce around the mirrored space, demonstrate the proper form for a squat, and shout, “Nice job, ladies!” But clients kept right on complaining, and I was unceremoniously demoted in December via a short email informing me that I would be removed from the schedule while remaining on the substitute list. “We can discuss again during performance reviews,” the email read. But I’d had all the performance reviews I could stand. I quit and got a job in marketing.

A year later, I enrolled in yoga teacher training. I’d been a devoted yogi for well over a decade but had rejected the idea of teaching yoga because studios around the country churn out instructors faster than you can say “down dog.” That didn’t seem very leading edge to me, but as we now know, my energy isn’t leading edge. It’s better suited for teaching the elderly.

After completing a 200-hour program at Dallas Yoga Center, which cost $3,000 and included a five-hour (!) written exam, I sat one morning facing nearly two dozen octogenarians at an assisted living facility in East Dallas. I was making the most of my low energy leading a chair yoga class, directing hearing-impaired students over a public address system to “inhale as you float your arms up.” A spry pair in the front row smiled sweetly at me. I smiled back. A man fell asleep in the back row. I took note and kept going. Then a lady in a wheelchair cried out, “Where am I!? What the hell am I doing here?!” I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

In that moment, I would later realize, the old woman in the wheelchair gave voice to something I’d felt since losing my job two years earlier. We all get a little lost sometimes. And then we find our way home.


Allison Hatfield does not teach exercise for a living. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Comments