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Education: How My Obsession to Change the World Bu...

Education: How My Obsession to Change the World Built the CESP

I opened Aspire Pilates Center in 2006. It was part of my transition from my 15-year New York dance career to “the real world.”  I fell in love with Pilates’ pain reduction and deep strengthening while in physical therapy, but could not afford this powerful work. I knew from my first experience that Pilates could change the world and could change entire communities.

I was lucky enough to train with the indomitable Nora St. John and Naomi Leiserson at their Turning Point Studios in Walnut Creek, CA. I fell quickly and deeply into the work. Nora opened amazing doors for me, helping me access the knowledge of many of the Pilates world’s leaders early in my teaching career. And when I asked Nora to purchase a mat, she handed me two. She told me, “I see you doing really big things in the future, take two.”

I opened my Pilates studio intending to get this work into communities that didn’t have access. I then founded Grown Women Dance Collective in 2009 to focus my arts & wellness skills on impacting social justice. I worked with traditional, well-paying clients during the day, then went back into disinvested communities on nights and weekends to teach free classes. I saw that with just a little bit of this powerful work, folks didn’t lose their jobs due to back pain, elders stayed on their feet and independent in their homes, young athletes got their college scholarships, and women had profoundly better birthing experiences.

Through the thousands of folks I touched with my community-based programming, my studio became a safe place for people to learn to collaborate with their bodies, rest, and destress. Young people could do homework, get tutored, eat healthy food, and take naps. We helped kids successfully get out of high school, into college, out of college, into grad school, and out of grad school. Hanging around the Pilates studio gave community members a safe, calm, supportive place to “just be”. We saw stress decrease and quality of life, hope, fortitude, and joy increase. Folks got stronger. Lives changed. Once I started mentoring folks to become teachers, each student grew wings and further spread this powerful work into the community.

From Nora hearing my ideas of changing the world with Pilates in 2002, starting my community programs in 2006, and deepening programming in 2015, I continued to share my successes and ideas for community impact with Nora, Joy, and Ken anytime that we saw each other. Nora continued to be my biggest cheerleader, Joy got excited about my goals, and Ken started sponsoring our Juneteenth concert in 2014 and wondered how things could work. Nora always told me, “Let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll talk.”

Enter the uprisings of 2020. Balanced Body was ready to be part of the change. Nora called and listened with an open heart and open ears. She started digging deep into anti-racism training and gathered Balanced Body to the table. They listened to what I was doing in the community (helping communities heal from the inside out and helping break intergenerational poverty), why I was doing it (Black health and wealth disparities are abysmal), and how it was making change (people, families, and neighborhoods were shifting.)

We used my work as a blueprint and partnered to build the Community Expansion Scholarship Program, as well as giving support to Grown Women Dance Collective’s Joyful Movement Whole Life Program. We began building the CESP program in 2020. Soon, Misty Lynn Cauthen enthusiastically jumped in with her energy and industry expertise. Fabrice Lamego was a fantastic support during the interview process. We worked fast and furiously to get the program on its feet before the goodwill in the world shifted and folks went “back to business.” We succeeded and have remained committed to shifting the health and well-being in our communities, while diversifying the Pilates industry. Bringing in a rich tapestry of important and often overlooked voices brings new perspectives and expertise to the industry, which elevates us all.

Scholarship Cohort #1 began in January 2021, and we recently welcomed Cohort #4. We have 200 students in the program from all over the U.S. and in 11 countries. Students learn from Balanced Body’s amazing Primary Educators during their training weekends, and Misty and I hold monthly mentorship meetings, help build community in a private Facebook group, gather resources to help students access classes for practical hours, and help them develop important skills via logging, workshops, office hours, and being a supportive, open ear.

While much of the world has forgotten about the racial trauma seen in 2020, our students are still living in an inequitable world. But scholarship students are on a path that is helping bring about change and are not alone during the life-changing, but challenging certification journey. Being two of only a handful of Balanced Body’s Black Primary Educators in the world, Misty and I are mentors who “get” the isolation, marginalization, and discomfort that many BIPOC folks experience in Pilates studios. While I had only met 5 Black instructors during my first 15 years in the industry (worldwide), CESP students are part of a vibrant community of shared life experiences, challenges, and dreams. Students often self-organize into study groups, practice-teach with each other, support each other, work on business ventures together, and create life-long friendships. The program gives future Pilatistas a base to feel comfortable in their skin and…exhale.

And my favorite part of the program? Each student does community impact hours to bring this transformational work back into their community. With students sharing their skills in places where Pilates currently doesn’t exist, we’re looking forward to the day that the deep mind-body healing of Pilates is actually for everyone.

Testimonials from CESP students:

“This program has expanded my heart in many ways. I’ve seen such growth in myself this past year. I began the journey not feeling confident that I could be a great teacher. This program has instilled a passion and confidence that I and others need in life. Feeling empowered, feeling knowledgeable, and having a Pilates education is key to success. Many people automatically assume a brown woman may not teach Pilates or have the proper training. All we need are the tools, and we can exceed and shine brighter than the moon.”

“As a Black woman, this is the most supportive I’ve felt in any aspect of my career or aspirations. The resources and support mechanisms are amazing.”

“The program has been a completely immersive, educational, and supportive experience for me as a learner and future instructor. I continue to build layer upon layer, while having the formal education and support from Tonya and Misty. There is a big emphasis on excellence, community, sharing, and integrity.”

Interested in becoming a student in the CESP?

Applications are open July 1-15th, 2024, on the Diversity in Pilates website.

Are you a studio or Comprehensively Certified teacher wanting to get involved with the CESP?

We are always looking for new ATCs and studios to partner with for Teachers Training or practical hours, either in-person or online. We especially need U.S. studios in the South and on the East Coast. Studios interested in participating in this amazing program, please reach out to Nora.stjohn@pilates.com. We’d love to partner with you as we change the world!

African American instructor demonstrating kneeling work on the Reformer.

Tonya Marie Amos received a BA in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley, trained for 4 years on scholarship at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, and danced professionally for 15 years in New York. Introduced to Pilates over forty years ago as a young, injured dancer, she received her Comprehensive Pilates training in 2004 with Nora St. John and Naomi Leiserson. She has since furthered her skills studying with 30+ Master Teachers. Owner of award-winning Aspire Pilates Center and Artistic Director of Grown Women Dance Collective, Tonya uniquely combines arts and wellness for social justice. Her stunning annual Juneteenth dance concert teaches and celebrates Black history. She is currently developing the Joyful Movement Pilates Life Skills Teacher Training program, which will help increase resilience, resistance, self-empowerment, and joy in Black communities. She brings inspiring and healing experiences to communities that traditionally don't have access and is proud to help build cross-cultural and intergenerational bridges with her work. To learn more about the Grown Women Dance Collective or the Joyful Movement Pilates Life Skills program, visit www.GrownWomenDance.org Follow on Instagram: @GrownWomenDanceCollective

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