Book reviews

Book Review: Carola Trier: The First Woman Ever to Open a Pilates Studio: Portrait of an Extraordinary Journey

Author: Reiner Grootenhuis
Date of Publication: 2020
Available in printed form and electronic format on amazon

There is a species of animal known as the Pilates Nerd (also a line of cute Pilates clothing). This animal lives, breathes and dreams Pilates, chats about Pilates 24/7 with fellow Nerds (Nerds often have tribes), and tries to engage his significant other in Pilates discussions, whether or not significant other is interested (mine is usually not). Pilates Nerds get excited when a new piece of Pilates history is unveiled – a book, a letter, a photo or just any new information. Reiner Grootenhuis belongs to this Nerd species and I am a proud member as well. I greeted the news that Reiner had published a book about Carola Trier, the first woman to ever open a Pilates studio, with giddy excitement that typically characterizes Nerds. While I knew quite a bit about Romana Kryzanowska, the most well-known of Joe’s teachers, and a little about Kathy Grant and Ron Fletcher, Carola Trier was a mystery. I knew that Carola had operated her own studio while Joe was still alive, with his blessing. Both Romana and Kathy Grant had taught at the studio. I also knew that Carola had written a children’s exercise book (I have a copy 😉). But that was pretty much the sum total of my Carola knowledge. I relished the opportunity to learn more about this unique woman, and I was not disappointed. In addition to her contributions to the Pilates world that should not be understated, Carola lived a fascinating life, overcoming overwhelming odds to survive and thrive during a period that was fraught with difficulty.

Before I dive into a description of the book itself, a bit about its author. I knew Reiner from his Pilates Contrology forum, the first and largest Pilates facebook forum, with almost 12,000 members. Reiner teaches and runs a certification program in his studio, Pilates Powers, in Germany, He has authored several Pilates manuals – armchair, Cadillac and reformer (the reformer manuals have not yet been translated into English). Reiner is also a regular contributor to Pilates Intel, a online Pilates magazine, serves on the Board of the International Pilates Heritage Congress and is a Weng Chun Kung Fu teacher.

Back to the book. One of the wonderful things about it is that much of the information within comes directly from Carola herself. In researching the book, Reiner delved into the Carola S. Trier Collection from the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, a huge repository of materials pertaining to the Jewish communities of Central Europe. The collection spans a timeline of five centuries and contains a wealth of information about Carola and her family, prominent Jews of German origin. Within the Carola Trier Collection are correspondence, periodical clippings, photographs (more on those later) and….. Carola’s manuscript, which appears to have been the beginning of her own autobiography. Some of this was handwritten; Reiner painstakingly deciphered the sometimes barely legible handwritten portions. When he was unable to read a word, Reiner included a question mark rather than guessing at the content. I bring this up because it speaks to Reiner’s ability to remain objective about his subject rather than coloring the biography with his own interpretations. When a biographer loses his objectivity and his admiration (or disdain) becomes overly apparent in the pages of his book, readers rightly question the veracity of the information within. Lack of objectivity was an unfortunate flaw of a recent book I read that covered some similar matter.

The material that was written by Carola herself primarily describes her youth, from her intellectual, bourgeois upbringing in Germany to her years struggling as an artist in Paris. This was just before World War II and the climate was already difficult and dangerous for a young female artist in Europe, even more so for a Jewish one. Carola recounts how the pursuit of her dream to become an established dancer led her to the vaudeville theaters in France, where she made a name for herself as a contortionist acrobat on roller skates. She then describes her time in the internment camp in Gurs, in the South of France, where she was imprisoned as an enemy alien and as a Jew, before escaping and later leaving for America where her family had already emigrated.

After Carola’s arrival in the United States, she began performing again until a knee injury led to her to Joseph Pilates. Convinced of the brilliance of his method, Carola opened her own studio with Joe’s blessing and remained close with Joe. She was faithful to Joe’s teachings, although she ran her studio very differently, and her lessons were also structured rather differently. The description of Carola’s life after arriving in America relies heavily on interviews given by Carola’s nephew and her students, such as Jillian Hessel and Deborah Lessen. These testimonies provide an insight into Carola’s determination, fiery temperament and exacting nature. In a biography, testimonies of friends and family and contemporaries are invaluable resources that go a long way toward painting a picture of the subject; third person hearsay should, however, never be substituted as fact, and Reiner is careful to avoid that trap. He provides sources for each piece of information within the book, providing the reader a balanced perspective from which to reach his own conclusions. This is particularly important within the Pilates world, whose history is rife with opinions, conjecture and myth that are readily accepted and perpetuated even when false.

The end of the book is certain to delight Pilates Nerds. It contains photos of Carola executing her mat and reformer routine. The photos are similar to the archival photos of Joe, but with some differences in the order and names of the exercises, including an exercise that I had never seen. Close examination of the photos also reveals some differences in the equipment compared to the ones in the Joe photos and compared to modern equipment (although Carola’s equipment was built by Joe). I won’t spoil the fun for you Nerds out there by revealing anything further. You will have to discover them for yourselves.

The Carola Trier biography does a wonderful job shedding light upon the life of a woman whose journey was equally as compelling as that of her teacher, Joseph Pilates. Her biography is interesting not only because of her contributions to the Pilates world, but also in its own right. It is the tale of a woman who overcame overwhelming odds (her sex, religion, nationality, career choice and imprisonment!) to achieve prosperity and to make her own mark on history. Pilates Nerds worldwide will enjoy this inside look at the life of Carola Trier.