Bergen and Clayburgh Are on the Muscle After Stretching Mind and Body at Pilates

updated 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The building on Manhattan's West 56th Street is small, gray and thoroughly nondescript, but starting at 7:30 each weekday morning some of the most noteworthy—and fittest—figures in town pass through its doors. Among them: Candy Bergen, photographer Francesco Scavullo, Jill Clayburgh and ballet superstar Natalia Makarova—all headed for the sixth floor and Pilates Studio, a mecca for those who want to be in top physical shape and, more important, don't mind suffering for it.

To be sure, Pilates (pronounced Pill-lah-tees) resembles a modern-day chamber of horrors complete with racks, chains and springs. The apparatus was designed by the gym's German-born founder, the late Joseph Pilates, long before anyone had broken sweat on a Nautilus. Joe, a gymnast who used to pose for anatomical charts, ran Pilates for 40 years until his death in 1967 at the age of at least 85. Romana Kryzanowska, a former ballet teacher and a Pilates disciple, was recruited to succeed him, and each year since has attracted hundreds of converts.

Among the grateful initiates who called Pilates "Uncle Joe" were Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Yehudi Menuhin, Ruth St. Denis and George Balanchine, who still sends his New York City Ballet dancers to the gym. Pilates called his system Contrology, and his goal, says Romana, was "mental and physical harmony." The basic Pilates regimen includes 34 exercises that, rather than straining and enlarging muscles, lengthen and strengthen them. "If you watch dogs and cats, they stretch, don't they?" says Romana. "Well, our method is for the way the human animal moves."

At the beginning the emphasis is on strengthening the abdomen. "That means it's not mushy, flabby or sticking out," she says. "If you have a strong tummy, you can support your back and stand straighter. You feel better." Sessions begin on a device called the Universal Reformer—a movable platform connected to springs. Pilates clients sit or recline on the platform and perform scores of exercises. In the Hundred, for example, legs and head are raised at a precise angle and the arms are pumped up and down 100 times to strengthen the stomach muscles. The Roll-Over involves attaching straps to both legs, bringing them over and behind the head, and then slowly lowering them to flex the spine. Romana is quick to point out that "Joe did not believe in machines. The apparatus makes you do the work yourself."

The resulting program is a challenge even to such highly trained athletes as veteran dancer Jacques d'Amboise, who was sent to Pilates 24 years ago by Balanchine. "It's hard," d'Amboise concedes. "The exercises require concentration and commitment. But I walk out of there exhilarated. I feel as if I could dance Swan Lake around the clock." Jill Clayburgh agrees. "If I work out here for a while, it really changes my body," she says. "It's not just puff and groan. It's the exercise system for people with at least half a brain."

Like Pilates before her, Romana is a most persuasive advertisement for the system. Now in her 50s and a grandmother, she went to Pilates in 1940 to relieve the pain of an ankle injury and "just kept going." The daughter of two painters, Romana was born in Detroit, raised in Florida and studied at the School of American Ballet in New York. At 18 she fell in love with, and later married, Pablo Mejia, a wealthy Peruvian alpaca farmer by whom she had two children before his death from cancer some 15 years ago. Daughter Sari is married to composer Robert Pace and teaches at Pilates. Son Paul is the assistant artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet and the husband of ballerina Suzanne Farrell.

Though each 45-to 60-minute session at Pilates costs $13, Romana says the gym isn't elitist. "Stars and salesgirls work side by side," she maintains. "The common denominator is hard work." That, and in many cases a devotion to jogging. "If Uncle Joe were alive today, he would have worried himself sick about the joggers," says Romana. "He would have known they were going to hurt themselves, and 90 percent of them do. It's because when they started out they weren't in shape." And how should they get in shape? You don't need to ask.

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