We Are Our Ancestors Wildest Dreams (Part 1)

We Are Our Ancestors Wildest Dreams (Part 1)

Balanced Body Black History Month

I grew up in the disinvested Sunnydale district of San Francisco. I started my movement career as a competitive gymnast under the first wave of incredible Russian coaches that came to the US in the ’70s. I also studied classical ballet. While I had a fantastic foundation, I pounded my talented body and hypermobile joints into the ground from the beginning. The world had made it quite clear that my brown skin and curly hair were not welcome in professional ballet (nor 1970’s gymnastics). So I majored in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. While in college, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and Garth Fagan performed back to back on campus, and suddenly I was no longer alone. I ran off to New York (NY) two weeks after graduating from college during a blizzard (I was from California, what did I know about blizzards) with $200 in my pocket, no job, and no place to live. I was honored to be invited by Denise Jefferson (who later became my dear NY dance mom) to audition for a scholarship at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. I danced for 4 years on a full scholarship at Ailey, which springboarded my career.

Dancing professionally in NY is an intense, beautiful, dramatic, empowering, insane, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” experience. And because I didn’t run off to NY until after college, I was on borrowed time. I went into my career fast and furiously. As we say in the dance community, I left it all on the floor. Yeah, but that also included my joints. Thankfully… I found Pilates.

I actually had my first experience with Pilates at age 9. I was a baby dancer with an injured foot. I was referred to the amazing St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco for physical therapy. That was my first of 17 bouts of physical therapy during my dance career. I also took considerable strengthening, aligning, consciousness-creating floor barre classes in NY, which I realized later when I was certifying, were actually Pilates-based exercises. And, they worked. After each 6-week stint of Pilates, while injured, I’d go back to rehearsals and get my solos back. That will get you killed in a dance company: solos had been re-assigned, costumes sometimes re-cut, and suddenly I’m waltzing in (with no limp) with my leg higher, my turns better, and even stronger than before my injury. It was really mind-blowing. By cleaning up some of the unhealthy body mechanics previously drilled into me through old-school dance techniques, I was able to start unwinding those patterns that caused chronic pain, lowered my performance, and challenged the integrity of my poor joints. I was able to enjoy a 15-year dance career without any significant setbacks.

After 9/11, my husband and I ran off to Latin America and backpacked for 11.5 months from Mexico to Bolivia. It was life-changing. I came back to the US and had a dancer “midlife crisis” (cue music: “There’s gotta be something better than this…”). I panicked, thinking that I had “no skills,” that I had spent most of my life honing my expertise as a mover. And I panicked because the only other thing that I thought I knew how to do was answer a phone as a receptionist. I thought I would have to “start over” at age 35, and I was scared.

I decided to certify in Pilates. I checked out programs in New York, Denver, and the Bay Area because I knew I had a family couch to sleep on in these areas. Nothing was clicking until Nora St. John (I had no idea who she was at the time) picked up the phone at Turning Point, her studio in Walnut Creek. Nora was warm, kind, open, encouraging, and patient, and that’s the type of teacher and mentor she’s been for me from the beginning. When I started the certification program, I had no idea how lucky I was to have Nora and Naomi Leiserson training me. They are BRILLIANT. I laughingly still refer to myself as a “Follower of Nora.” I just want to walk around and “stick a straw in her brain” to suck out some of her brilliance! Turning Point became my home. Nora also allowed me to attend countless Pilates on Tours, where I was blessed to learn from and hang out with many of the world’s genius master teachers early in my career. She opened doors that gave me exposure to this excellence, which informs how I teach and my desire to share my knowledge with anyone who will listen.

Tonya Amos Pilates TeacherAspire Pilates Center was honestly born out of drug-induced euphoria. (No, not that kind of drug.) Shortly after leaving New York, I had abdominal surgery (which solidified the idea that my dance career was probably over). Apparently, I am REALLY sensitive to anesthesia. Nobody told me that you’re not supposed to make any life-altering decisions right after surgery. Still, I got obsessed with opening a Pilates studio. I was lying on the couch with ice on my belly and 6 anatomy books open, and I proclaimed that I was going to start a studio. Right?? I had no “business experience,” and I’d never had “a real job.” Yet from concept to opening day, complete with the Chamber of Commerce’s giant scissors, I opened Aspire Pilates Center in 6 weeks. Haha! And then I “woke up” mid-client 4 months after the surgery and anesthesia… I remember the exact moment when the brain fog cleared up. I was working with a client.

I looked around my studio and said out loud, “Wait, what…I did what?!” It was totally nuts. But Aspire Pilates Center was mine. I started on 0% interest credit cards and with no connections in California except my family. I used my dancer hustle to make it work. Over the next 12 years, I helped thousands of people get out of pain, students gain athletic scholarships, professional athletes take their games to the next level, dancers get outrageous extensions and perfect their jumps, prevented seniors from falling, helped women have their babies in 4 pushes, and created an environment where folks of all backgrounds, body types and ability levels could explore the magic of Pilates in a safe, warm, nurturing and non-judgmental environment.


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 Follow on Instagram: @GrownWomenDanceCollective



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