Kelly Kane has taught and practiced Pilates, as well as numerous other somatic and bodywork modalities, for seventeen years. In this interview, she talks about how her many interests and areas of expertise inform her Pilates practice, and the teacher-training program she has at the Kane School of Core Integration in New York.
This interview was conducted via phone by Elisabeth Marshall, a Stott Pilates certified instructor teaching in Hamilton, New Zealand.
What led you into Pilates? What was your initial training?
Well, I first started doing it as my fitness regime, when I was working in fashion, actually. But before I went into fashion I was a medical school dropout, and I went from medical school to massage school. After I finished massage school I got into fashion for a little while, just because I had been into it when I was younger; I sewed and made patterns and stuff, and I thought I would try my hand at it. And then, as an individual working in the fashion world, I started doing Pilates as my fitness regime, and an associate of mine, an ex-dancerówe were working very long days, and tired of the whole thing, and so we both were like, ďLetís become Pilates teachers!Ē. And at that time there was not a lot happening; it hadnít proliferated the way it has now. In New York, there were maybe three Pilates studios in the city, maybe four. And we started with Romana, and essentially she waved her wand and said, now you can start teaching. That was the beginning of the Pilates journey, but the body journeyóI always say that Iím actually much more interested in bodies, itís just that I choose to look at movement through Pilates. Part of the reason that I went in that direction is that when I started doing Pilates there actually werenít that many teachers in the New York area, everyone was kind of doing their own little thing. I had been teaching Iyengar yoga pretty intensively, and I thought, my favourite yoga teachers are in the city, so Iím going to go into Pilates. Well, little did I know that yoga would go crazy here! Itís insane, thereís tons and tons of yoga, but at the time there werenít that many yoga people. So thatís how I started with it.
So from there you stayed with Romanaís training, and kept up with thatÖ
I went through Romana and Hila Paldi originally. Hila Paldi studied with Romana and had a studio uptown. And then I eventually got my certification through the PhysicalMind Institute. I decided to do my own teacher training after executing theirs for about eight years: I started to do mine about eight years ago.
Were there any shifts in your training philosophy, or things that youíve come increasingly to believe, or things that youíve come to do as youíve gone on? You have a lot of experience with other bodywork and other disciplines: do you mix that in, or feel that itís influenced you?
Yeah. Totally. I feel that I didnít learnóitís odd to say, but I didnít learn all that I wanted or needed to know in the Pilates venue, about bodies. I felt that I learned the exercises, and how to get people strong and get people moving, but I felt that I really needed to know so much more, because a lot of times when I did an exercise I felt that I could do it about fifty different ways. Although on the outside it would look one way, there were many different ways I could think about recruiting or activating. So I had all these choicesóin a way it was like my brain needed to make more sense of what my body was doing. So then I studied a lot of anatomy, and Iíve done a lot of manual therapy stuff, and I did cadaver dissections, and Continuum, which is the work of Emilie Conrad-Díoud. And I did the School for Body-Mind Centering teacher-training programóI didnít finish it, but I finished I think two and a half years, and then I made a baby, so there was a conflict and I couldnít continue in the program! For me itís just always been about how bodies work and how they move, how they get into trouble, and what feels good, and what doesnít feel good; and if Iím a practitioner I need to know the detail of it all. I feel like one of the things I learned was the schematic of the body: in this culture we think of muscles and bones and nerves, which is kind of this map of the body. And then I learned how to sense strongly with my hands so I could see how that map was different in each individual. I think thatís the hallmark of what we do here, that idea of people being able to fully understand the map. Then they get to apply itóweíll work on their sensory perceptive skills, so they can feel whatís happening in the individualís body that theyíre working on. I feel like thatís a lot of what we do here, and what Iím interested in.
Do you think thatís something that was at odds with your initial training, or just didnít come up?
With Romana, she was not about the anatomy. With the manual training, in the beginning, there were touches, but it was very specific and didnít have a lot of depth. Because I had done cranio-sacral therapy, and a lot of itómeaning I had had it done to me and I had done the trainingóI felt that I could sense whole landscapes in peopleís bodies. When they were moving, I could assist them in maybe moving more efficiently or getting out of pain patterns, or assist them in changing pain patterns by using other recruitment patterns, and so that to meóit was more like stumbling into it. But I didnít learn that through Pilates, I learned it through an amalgamation of listening to different modalities, and listening to different visionary teachers Iíd come across, and then really being a student of all my clients who had walked in my door, just really listening well to what their bodies were saying.
So how does that affect a session that you would give? Does it change the exercises that you would do, or the way that youíre hands-on with people?
I think a lot of times itís yes and no. Itís more how the template of their own body needs to do an exercise. Like a lot of times youíll have someone get into something and theyíll say ďOh, that hurtsĒ. And Iíll put my hands on them and say, ďWell, why does that hurt?Ē. And say it hurts their left SI joint; usually what I feel is that the left SI joint might be compressed, because the left femoral head isnít gliding enough. So itís more like really refining how people move, and not just haphazardly doing the movements. For me itís meant really cultivating my capacity to listen well and to be present with my clients, so that it ends up being a more transformational flavour, as opposed to just working the muscles. Itís seeing people heal: and a lot of times when they heal, whether they heal by becoming more actualised and stronger and more physically capable in the world through exercise, or whether they heal by cycling through and out of pain, what I find is that when you really witness someone, and support them with your full attention, usually people process. And so they process what they need to have happen in a given session. You could do it in a cranio-sacral session, but you could also do it in a Pilates session. And it doesnít necessarily mean that you wouldnít move, or go hard, or move quickly, or whatever, itís just that there would be a different kind of attention from the practitioner and from the person moving. I guess it means giving more consciousness to how one moves, and that kind of consciousness translates into stronger neural connections, which often translates into strength. And connected movement. Funny, itís not how I usually talk about all this stuff! Itís always interesting what one says, you know?
For all your training, and youíve done so many things, you still come from a non-medical perspective, right? You havenít done physiotherapy or osteopathyÖ
No. I went to medical school, and I didnít stayóI did my pre-med and then a semester of medical school. I really decided that thatís not whereóin my culture at the time, I thought, thatís what I knew. If I was going to explore how the body is and what it is, I thought, oh, well, medical school, thatís the way. And when I got to medical school, one of the things I would say is that Iím not a huge fan of patriarchal structures. And medical school is [laughing] highly patriarchal! I wasnít having it. I guess it would have made more sense if there was more real investigation, more room for exploration, and it just didnít feel like there was lots of room for that at all.
Is it that aspect of witnessing and being with people that makes the difference?
I feel like thatís what we end up doing here a lot. If I look at the practitioners here, and the people Iíve chosen to work here, and the way that Iím working, thatís often what I seeóa certain presence, and that cultivates a certain consciousness in the studio that is partly me, but is in large part the people who are here. And you know, the New York style of Pilates is quite fast-moving and aggressive in nature, and so in many ways weíre a real anomaly in the New York venue, in the diaspora of New York Pilates studios. Itís been interesting, people have said, ďOh, you donít do PilatesĒóor they havenít said it to me, but theyíve said it to other people who have graduated from the school, and I love when they say that, because people do do Pilates hereóit just seems like itís fearful when people say that. Of course we do Pilates, thatís what I do, but weíre also doing this whole other thing. I think itís naÔve to think that when you interface with someoneís physicality that you wouldnít be interfacing with them on every level, meaning their psyche and their spirit. I think thatís what happens; even though thatís not where we choose to put our focus here, there is that feeling that itís being honoured here.
You say on your website that youíre classically basedóand I donít like that everything comes back to that distinction between classical and contemporary, but you havenít gone outside of the Pilates.
No, whatís interesting is that I teach very classic choreography. In terms of the choreography part of our teacher-training program, itís extremely classic. But underlying that are the principles of biomechanics, and helping people profoundly affect those biomechanics. And to affect that, you have to understand in detail how things move in relation to each other, and be able to sense and feel and affect that. So one of the things that happens with the understanding or study of anatomy is that people learn and study it in a book thatís someoneís artistic rendering of a cadaver, for example. Itís so far removed from what the actual human organism is, you know? So we study our anatomy in a two-dimensional way. And then thereís often this disconnect between studying in a book and whatís actually in front of you in the body. So even though we have this classical structure, thereís a lot of attention paid to how you see the physical anatomy in the body thatís in front of you. Itís a quite large undertaking, which is part of the reason it doesnít happen so much: itís not so easy.
Tell me about your cadaver workóhow did that happen?
I did it with a man who I love and adore, named Gil Hedleyóhe is a friend of mine, and Iíve done a couple of dissections with him. Itís interesting, because heís a theologian, but he also is a Rolfer, and has been conducting these dissections for a long time now. I heard about him because I had been involved in manual therapy and something called Structural Integration, which is kind of an offshoot of Rolfing. He does [a dissection workshop] at a place called the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry, and through word of mouth I heard about the dissection, and I did all my dissections with him. In my first year of medical school we did have gross anatomy, but itís definitely much more detailed when youíre in [medical school]óGilís courses are a week long, so you have one cadaver, and then I think we were having six people per cadaver. In gross anatomy at med school, it was much slower; you would spend a whole year on a cadaver, essentially. So I didnít get through a whole cadaver in medical school because I didnít stay in medical school. But it was such a huge part of me being able to see into the body, being able to do those dissections and proactively excavate structures and then feel them, put my hands on them and feel the three-dimensionality of them, and feel where they begin and end, and feel their relationships to other structures, which is very hard when youíre learning anatomy in two dimensions, and was always my disconnect. And he really did teach me how to be able to see into bodies; I think he was the one who helped me create that kind of vision.
When youíre training teachers, do you combine that kind of depth of anatomy study? Are there things that youíd recommend people to do, or that you require people to do?
For our teacher-training program, thereís an anatomy prerequisite, so before you enter our program you either have to take our anatomy course, or have a passing grade on our anatomy exam. Once you enter the program we immediately start with: how do we connect your understanding of anatomy, bones, muscles, origins, insertions, to the relationships with the body in front of you. The way that we do that is through touch, and above and beyond that, is through assessing visually. But for me, I feel like thereís a whole landscape that I can feel that I actually canít always see. And thatís part of the reason that we spend so much time touching people, which is kind of difficultóin New York, that can be a little loaded, but we havenít had any problems this far! Thereís all these mandates in New York, itís just weird, but I canít go thereóI teach my teachers how to have clear and safe boundaries, and honour and respect themselves and their clients, so thatís first and foremost, but thereís a lot of attention paid to that.
For example, thereís a lot of talk in the Pilates world about pelvic floor and transversus abdominis and multifidi engagement, and that inner unit activity. One of the things thatís so interesting to me is that when I go and teach at conferences, I think, how can you tell if someoneís pelvic floor is engaged? And people donít have any skills to be able to assess that. That is somewhat shocking to meóyes, itís a hard structure to be able to assess, but I want to give my students and teachers skills to be able to tell, if theyíre asking their client to engage their pelvic floor, if theyíre actually doing it; and if theyíre doing it, what part of their pelvic floor theyíre engaging. I want my students to be able to assess transversus abdominis engagement in respect to oblique engagement, and whatís the difference, and what does it feel like, and how do they assess and get their clients to do what theyíre asking. And itís the same thingóI feel like thereís a lot of talk about, for example, that inner unit thing, pelvic floor, multifidi, TvA, and diaphragm, and yet thereís not concrete skill-sets that people are being taught, to assess that their clients understand and are doing what theyíre asking them to do. Thatís a big thing for meóthat really profound understanding of my teachers as they graduate our program, as opposed to being drill sergeants. I actually want them to teach, teach their clients something, teach them a new way of thinking or being or feeling or moving. I guess thatís a big part of the teacher-trainingóhow can you tell what your clients are doing?
And that you do with your hands, within a session?
Yeah, a lot of anatomy study, a lot of explanation of anatomy, a lot of being able to feel, to really understand bones, like the shape of all the bones, where they are, and what they do in relationship to each other. Thatís a big baseline here. What happy joints feel like when they move, and what unhappy joints feel like when theyíre moving, and how to facilitate more happiness! And then how to feel muscles, and fascia, and how to feel and assess thatÖ
How much of that comes through to your clients, in terms of having a session? Is it a more cerebral experience for them, or do they learn more terminology?
I think in part itís one of my missions, you know? But it doesnít have to be. I feel like a teacher needs to have that depth of understanding, and then they can choose how they communicate that to their clients. A lot of clients just canít handle it, and theyíre not interested. Itís their experience, so I donít load them up with all that crap. But itís one of my feelings, that if weíre going to live in this body, we should know what we got goiní on! Itís kind of the yoke Iíve taken on, to reallyónot try to overwhelm, but to give people basics of how things work. A lot of times when Iím teaching I try to give anatomical cues and then abut that, or right after it, give a metaphoric cue, so that people start to relate the metaphor to the actual structure. So it dependsóI donít feel like the client always needs to know, if thatís not their area of interest, but I am clear on feeling that teachers absolutely need to know.
Are there any recommendations youíd have for other teachers, in terms of books and DVDs, courses and resources that you recommend?
I love Gilís DVDs, you know Gil Hedley has that series out, I think itís great. I havenít come across dissection DVDs that have such an incredible dissection. I use Frank Netterís Atlas of Human AnatomyóI know every plate in there! For beginner teachers, I like Kendall and McCreary, Muscles: Testing and Function, and Norkin and Levangie, Joint Structure and Function, I use those a lot. I also in some ways resource Eric Franklinís stuff, and Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohenís stuff, and Tom Myers, too, his Anatomy Trains. And then in terms of teachers, I love Emilie Conrad-Díoud. Sheís been one of my big teachers, even though sheís not in Pilates. And then Irene Dowd, Iíve studied with her, and I really admire Marie-Josť Blom Lawrence, and Madeline Black, and I love Brent Anderson. I really like Rael, even though heís kind of not in my vein of things, I really appreciate the way he teaches, Rael Isacowitz. When I go to workshops and conferences and stuff, I always like to see what those guys are doing. Iíve studied a lot of Gyro, too, Gyrokinesis and Gyrotonic, and Iíve done a lot with Juergen Bamberger and Sebastian Plettenberg, both in New York.
Do you combine things in a session for people?
You know, not a lot. I have, I go through cycles, but not really. Itís kind of funny. In my mat classes I incorporate a lot, I use the brick, the yoga block, a lot, for different thingsólike the shoulder series, the bridging series, on the mat, I do that with the brick under the pelvis as opposed to having the hands hold the pelvis up. I like that series but I feel that itís not accessible to most people, and the brick makes it very accessible. And I do feel sometimes that thereís not specific stretching of structures in the Pilates classic repertory, so I throw in stuff from different modalities. But when you come in here, itís not so much that it looks like people are really combining tons of modalities, it doesnít look so different. People use the equipment and kind of classic Pilates stuff, but we mix in a little bit here and there. All my practitioners study all kinds of things, so theyíre mixing it up, but we keep it that weíre doing Pilates.
I got tired of Pilates a while ago. I was just like, I canít do it any more, Iím over it. And then I thought, what do I love about it, and what is intrinsic? If I were to look at the practice of Pilates, and look at what I know about bodies, and how they work and how they move, whatís interesting about Pilates, and how could it be used most effectively? And I think itís really accessible to everyone. You can take really varied skill levels, you can take really compromised people and very highly trained athletes, you can take people who have huge ranges of motion and people who can hardly move, and you can adapt the modality to everyone. Also I think, Iíve done a lot of different movement practices, and some of them I find in some ways more interesting to my body, but I think for the general population Pilates is Ö itís safe, meaning that itís not free-form movement, someone tells you the exercises to do, you do them; itís not multiplanar at one time, so itís uniplanar or biplanar movement, whereas Gyrokinesis can be tri- or multiplanar movements in one position. And I feel like that fact makes it really useful for the average bear, so to speak. I feel like itís been extremely usefulówe do fitness here, but we also do rehab and post-rehab movement; although we wouldnít tell anyone that, thatís what ends up happening, is that people come in here to rehab from injury. The equipment is really well-adapted for that, I feel, and the movement as well. One of the things thatís just so exciting is that having been in this business for a long time, I couldnít call myself a Pilates teacher because of the issues of the Pilates trademarkóitís just so cool that thereís so much dialogue out there now, and thatís one of the things I really, really appreciate.
Many thanks for your time and insights! Thank you for sharing so much with us.
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Conversation with Kelly Kane
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