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Gratz had an opportunity to learn more about the “Influencers” and high profile teachers in the Pilates community to share their experiences in 2020-21. We interviewed Sonje Mayo to tell her history, present situations and hopes for the future.


ABOUT SONJE MAYO

Sonjé Mayo was born in South Africa in 1945. At barely four years old, she went to her first classical ballet class and never looked back!

After certifying as a physical therapist at the University of Cape Town, her career as a professional dancer took her to London, England, and then to the USA where she studied jazz dance initially with Luigi and then contemporary dance at the Martha Graham School in NYC. It was here at the Graham School where Sonjé had the privilege of meeting Joseph Pilates. The few Pilates sessions she had with Joseph Pilates, and later with Romana Kryzanowska proved to have a profound influence on Sonje’s future.


Please share any family or childhood memories or interests related to sports, hobbies, education, music, health and fitness history

When I was a little girl, I really wanted to dance. At the age of 3, my father told me that there would be no dancing for me. He said I needed to  learn a musical instrument because dancing ‘on the wicked stage’ leads to an immoral life. My neighbor-- whose daughter was about a year older than me-- took me secretly to watch her daughter’s dance classes. I would watch on the sidelines and copy everything, but of course I never directly participated with the class. I was unaware of this but everybody in the class was looking at me as I practiced. The teacher took note of this, and after the 6th lesson she came to see my father and said, "If you don't let your daughter dance, then I will pay for her because this child has talent like I've never seen." She was a forceful woman. My father felt embarrassed by this encounter and finally obliged, hoping that I'd get bored. I never did.

Although my parents paid for the lessons, they were never interested in getting involved at all. A different driver would take me to my lessons. This continued until I was 12 years old and when a big ballet competition came up, I went on my own. When I was in the wings, one of my friends came up to me and asked if I knew that my parents were in the audience. I thought she was mistaken, but after the competition my father came backstage and said, "Okay, I see you have talent. We will go all out and find the best teacher." I was in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, but he took me to Johannesburg, which is a good one hour away from us, because the best teacher was there. He made sure that I went to this famous teacher 3 times a week because he believed that if I was going to commit to this then I’d have to do it properly. That was the blossoming for my love of movement and dance, but I had to be diligent with my academic career and obtain a college degree first. My father said you never know what will happen in life and that I may not earn a living as a dancer. When I finished school, all I wanted to do was dance. My father insisted I get a degree first, and that if I did, he'd pay for me to go anywhere in the world. So I chose Physical Therapy since it is related to movement and dance.


What brought you to Pilates? Please describe your evolution as a student, apprentice and certification, organizational alliances, etc.

It usually takes 4-5 years to complete the PT degree, but I got it in 3.5 years because I worked like a demon. When I was 6 months shy from completing my degree, I heard about a summer dance program in the USA. Dancers in South Africa usually went to London because South Africa used to be a British colony and people were more familiar with London dance schools. I have very long legs, and I assumed that teachers in America understood long levers better because they had so many tall leggy ballet dancers. When I asked my dance teachers in South Africa to help me control my long limbs, they stressed ballet technique and repetition, but they didn’t give me the answers I sought. So I went to my anatomy professor, but his knowledge was limited to anatomy, and nothing about movement. I was determined to find answers, so I signed up for the George Balanchine American Ballet Theatre summer program.   

When I arrived at  the school in NYC I felt like an outsider so I stuck together with a German girl named Christina and a Chinese girl called Patricia. I would express my frustration to my two friends and they told me, "You will come with us to Martha Graham’s course in Jacob's Pillow and all your questions answered will be answered." I hadn't signed up for the course, but my two friends insisted I just go with them and that we would make up a story. So off we went to Jacob’s Pillow. When I arrived at the registration desk, the lady told me she didn't see my name. Keep in mind there was no internet back in those days, so I explained that my father had sent a telegram but didn't hear back, but still paid the fee. I even started to cry, and she told me to just to calm down and go in. When I returned to  South Africa, my father dutifully wired the money after hearing about my ruse.
Martha Graham… strict like you can’t believe. She started opening some doors for me and I soon realized why she was such a renowned teacher. However, it was almost prophetic when Martha Graham encouraged us all to attend the classes of Joseph Pilates, who was also present in Jacob’s Pillow that year. She assured us that we would learn more about the body from him than anybody else. I will never forget when I first saw Joe. Here was this man in his 80s with beautiful silver hair standing upright with a twinkle in his eye. He had this charm that reeled you in and he was such an amazing teacher. I remember that first lesson well. He was so clear and concise. You didn't miss a thing and no one's attention wavered. After class, I was speaking German with Christina to practice my language skills near the water fountain. Joe heard us and came down to ask if we were from Germany and asked our names. He looked at me and said, "That's a Jewish name. I am honored to teach someone Jewish because of our history in Germany. You must come to my studio in NYC”. We spent two weeks in Jacob's Pillow. I didn't want to single him out and bombard him with my questions, but I knew this man was going to be one to help me. He had such knowledge of anatomy and applied movement and was just way ahead of anyone I have ever met. I had to go back and finish my education, but I told Joe that I would come back. "I will wait for you", he said. Six months later, I completed my certification as a Physical Therapist. I got on the plane to the States immediately. I remember walking into Joe’s studio and saying, "I’m here. I have many questions."

Much later I learned from people who had studied with Joe, that he used to be a very impatient and egotistic individual. By the time I met him, he had mellowed considerably. I got the impression that he was often depressed because Contrology had not taken off like he had envisioned, sadly because he was his own worst enemy. He would get very irritated if his students did not listen or concentrate. He would refuse to teach them or hand them over to Clara. Physicians who were students would frequently question him and it drove him mad. They would argue with him and question his anatomical reasoning.  In terms of understanding the body in motion, Joe was so ahead of his time and he readily dismissed people who were not in sync with his thinking.

Now fast forward to 1966 when I arrive like an ingenue,  ‘bright-eyed and bushy tailed’  with all my questions. If this had been 20 years earlier, he would have told me to shut up.
I don’t know if it was my enthusiasm, but Joe was so patient with me. I only wanted to be a better dancer at the time and I was desperate for help. I needed to know why I could not be consistently good at ballet. It was kind of ‘hit and miss’. I knew there had to be a formula... there had to be a way.  Joe took one look at me and said, "Lie down on the mat, bend your knees, and put your feet flat on the mat. Can you get you lower back down?" I tried and told him that I could only get it down if I curled my tailbone under. "There is your answer.” he replied. “ You have lumbar lordosis. Now that you are a PT and body aware, tell me what else is wrong." He really made me think things through and verbalise what I felt. I lay there for 5 minutes and finally said "I have a tight, short lower back and I cannot get my lower back down because my abdominals are too weak to override a tight psoas muscle." He said in German, "Genau" which means ‘exactly’. He asked me what I needed to do to fix this problem and I thought it over and realized I have to lengthen my lower back and strengthen my lower stomach. I also have to stretch the front of my hip. He nodded his agreement and said: “ Now we start with the mat and you will do this with every exercise. You are going to be your own teacher." He rolled a towel and placed it under my lumbar spine. And thus my quest to achieve the ‘perfectly placed pelvis’ started. Joe was relentless in the way that he demanded my full engagement throughout the lesson. I was used to this kind of discipline in the ballet world, but he was a hard task master. When I had difficulty doing an exercise on the mat, he would use a piece of equipment to get results. I could not see Joe as often as I wanted because I was working as a dancer and that was demanding in NYC with so much competition. I would only arrive at his studio late in the afternoon, sometimes at 7 o'clock at night to practice. He would be upstairs but he'd hear me enter and come down. I felt bad about disturbing him and Clara so late and told him and told him that I could work on my own, but he would brush me off and start teaching me with so much passion and energy despite being about 85 years old!!

I never came during the day so I rarely saw other students. Hannah, the other teacher in the studio, was usually gone by the time I got there. If there were people present with either Joe or Clara, I was oblivious to them, because I was so focused on myself and my journey to perfection. As for payment, Joe never asked for money or would not even discuss it. I managed to find out from George Ballanchine what he paid. I would always have my cash ready in an envelope on arrival at the studio. If I didn't have the money, I would not go. I would always try to give it to Joe but he was so dismissive about it that I started giving it to Clara. I felt sorry for them. They were so poor and lived frugally. If they wanted to go somewhere, Hannah would drive them, otherwise they walked everywhere. They had a book/register which you would sign when you walked in. Clara told me I didn't need to sign it because I always paid up front as did George Balanchine. I surmised  that the book was perhaps a list of people who owed them money. I soon realized that neither Joe nor Clara had any business acumen. It was as if they didn’t care about the money. Joe was all about giving and teaching, which is admirable but the studio was in dreadful need of repair and they could have done with some more money.

I soon started to see the change in my dance. What I had been searching for so desperately in the past was that stable vertical pelvis. Once I started achieving that, I could feel  the improvement in strength, balance, control and stamina, all thanks to Joe. It took a year, exactly as Joe had predicted because I kept reverting back to old habits under pressure. He also forced me to hold back on my extreme flexibility. In retrospect I realize how distorted I was with my leg “round my tonsil”. He kept repeating, "stability and alignment is everything Sonje." I was worried that I would lose my flexibility at this rate, but he assured me that not only would I get it back, but it would be better. This man had all the answers.

I managed to see Joe 2-3 times a month. Sometimes a little more, but I don't think in all of our 24 lessons together there had been a day where we did not have long, magnificent sessions. Once he got involved,  he would not give up until he was happy with the progress.  In 1967, when I was on tour with the dance company in Europe, I heard he passed away. I was heartbroken.

My greatest regret to this day is that I did not get to thank Joe enough for what he had given me. Pilates changed my life as a professional dancer. My day in the dance company started with the Pilates Mat and then I would do the ballet class. It kept me centered, focused, and motivated to improve constantly. Without it, I would not have made it. Joe knew I was grateful for his gift but I wish I could have just had a little more time with him. I danced professionally for many years after. When I returned to South Africa in 1971, I started the first ever multi-racial modern dance company called Jazzart. That sounds so politically incorrect, but you have to remember this was during the Apartheid era and I took a huge risk opening it. I was playing with fire and we had a few police raids during rehearsals and I even spent a night in jail. However, I persevered and the company is still flourishing today. South Africa had a wealth of talented, untrained, black natural dancers. I needed to get them strong technically as quickly as possible. Martha Graham's technique was too difficult to start out with, so I taught them the Pilates Mat. I wish Joe could have witnessed that.

I never thought about teaching Pilates as a career, but it seemed that I was destined to do so. In 1995, we moved to Nashville, TN. My husband got a position at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and I started teaching the modern dance company. I was still dancing and performing  but then I experienced a huge setback. I got a herniated disc in my thoracic spine, partly due to my scoliosis and I knew that my dancing days were finally over. For me, this was the end of my life. In desperation I called a fellow PT in London and asked for her advice. She said, "For heaven’s sake, go find a Pilates teacher!' I wonder why I did not think of that sooner myself! After some unsuccessful attempts to find a good Pilates teacher in Nashville, where Pilates was hardly known at that time, I called Drago’s in NYC and tried to get a lesson with Romana. I had met Romana briefly at Joe’s studio one evening. She was teaching for Carola Trier and was not with Joe anymore. It was difficult reaching out to Romana because she was always so busy.  So I went  directly to NYC instead and saw her teaching. I waited for her to finish and walked up to her. "I don't think you remember me but I met you in Joe’s studio."  She looked at me and then said:  “you were the dancer who spoke German to Joe.”  I managed to have two lessons with Romana that week and two with a wonderful teacher named Cynthia Shipley. I was sold on becoming a Pilates teacher!

I did not realize there were many formal Pilates training certifications available. As much as I wanted to do Classical Pilates with Romana, I could not leave my family for 18 months to train in NYC. I was advised to go to Power or Peak Pilates, which I did.  It all came back to me very quickly, but I realized that although the modular form was convenient for someone with a family, it was just a foundation. The real work was still ahead. I went back to Romana for fine tuning. By then she was already in Dallas and her Alzheimer's were starting to set in. She could not remember your name, but she still had the best eye for correction like no other. Fortunately I found a teacher who was Romana trained named Alicia Godlieb in Nashville. She was a dancer and a superb teacher. I have to thank Alicia for taking me to a new level. Since then, I have not looked back.

"I love teaching Pilates because if one teaches it correctly and adheres to the principles of the method, every client gets results. I see people change in front of me. I see it work with consistent practice."

What do you love about teaching Pilates and teaching clients? What about your training, teaching teachers, and how do you see yourself as a leader and influencer?

I started my own studio and enjoyed working with people who had a plethora of problems. I often  asked myself, "What would Joe do?" And then all the answers would come because the man was  so clear and precise in his teaching. I learned so much in that year with Joe that I could never have learned with any training. It stuck with me. Joe did not have an order for the Reformer in those days- it was just you and the mat. That was the method. The rest of the equipment was to make your mat better. I always stress the mat in my studio.

I love teaching Pilates because if one teaches it correctly and adheres to the principles of the method, every client gets results. I see people change in front of me. I see it work with consistent practice. With my PT knowledge and my experienced eye, I  immediately hone in on the areas of opportunity so that I don’t waste time. Pilates can be adapted to all bodies and ameliorate most problems. Pilates is for everybody. I can take an 80 year old woman and get the best out of her and I can challenge a young, fit person with the same method.

I advise more young people to consider Pilates as a career. I have persuaded some young girls to use their college funds towards a good classical Pilates training. It is a wonderful, rewarding and lucrative career. 

Due to the pandemic and global health emergencies, COVID has financially impacted the Pilates Community and particularly studio owners pretty hard - how are you dealing with the challenges?

The pandemic has opened new doors for me. I have been so busy with great new challenges. Apart from teaching my own clients on Zoom, people have reached out to me from all five continents. I have had the pleasure of teaching Pilates people of all levels from all over the world. I would never have had the time to do this pre-pandemic. I am a stickler for detail and I work hard to give everyone as much of my knowledge as possible. I am a hard taskmaster (guess who I learned that from) and nobody gets away with anything. These Zoom classes have helped a lot of people through depressing times and they have also given me new purpose and focus.
Also I have been able to perfect my personal practice which led to more creativity on various pieces of equipment. Having the time to try different ways of doing exercises has been a luxury. So it’s all been good.

Sadly a few studios had to close due to financial reasons but I am sure those teachers have found a way to reach out to their clients virtually.

HOW DO YOU THINK THE PILATES COMMUNITY WILL ADJUST TO THE NEW REALITY MOVING FORWARD?

Virtual Pilates teaching has made an invaluable contribution to keep people motivated, Newer teachers have been given the most ideal opportunity to learn from the best on Zoom. This would not have been possible without having to travel in the past. Virtual teaching allows us to spread the work. Students and teachers on Zoom are networking and making new contacts. I also have had the time and opportunity to see other teachers at work and I appreciate their different approaches and cues

Adjusting to opening up studios again will be a gradual process. Like me, a lot of teachers have been teaching privates at their studio. However, virtual teaching has kept the method alive and much more awareness and communication has been created.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE CLASSICAL EQUIPMENT to work out in?

My favorite would have to be the Wunda chair. I LOVE the chair because it is literally great for everything and the most encompassing piece of apparatus there is. It is even difficult to sit upright. Did you know that it was the first apparatus that Joe patented? I also particularly like the Baby Chair. I remember when I was on it for the first time with Joe, I thought I was going to pass out with effort. I had those flaring ribs and the Arm Chair is the best remedy for that.  Basically, every apparatus has its own speciality for every kind of body. However, the Mat is still king….. That is the best workout you can do.


READ MORE ABOUT Sonje Mayo