Romana Kryzanowska weaves her way through Drago's Gym in midtown Manhattan like a mother hen, tending to her clients, teachers and apprentice instructors. The setting could be just about any well-appointed Pilates studio. What's unique is Kryzanowska, a pint-size dynamo who has taught Pilates for the past six decades--and who has just re-leased a four-volume DVD called Romana's Pilates. "I'm old, but I don't feel old," says Kryzanowska, who turned 81 on June 30.
Kryzanowska, who was born in Detroit the only child of artist parents, has always led an active life. She spent her young years living on an orange plantation in Florida. "I was wild," she says. "I climbed trees and swung on grapevines, hanging upside down and going like Tarzan of the Apes from one vine to another."
The family moved to New York City in the mid-1930s, and as a teenager Kryzanowska started classes at the School of American Ballet. Legendary choreographer George Balanchine co-founded the school in 1934, shortly after his arrival in the U.S., to train students for what eventually became the New York City Ballet. Several years later, Kryzanowska developed a painful bone chip in her ankle, and to help her avoid surgery, Balanchine took her to Joseph Pilates. A German immigrant, Pilates, assisted by his wife Clara, had developed a method of body conditioning that was garnering quite a following among the cognoscenti of ballet, dance and music.
Kryzanowska recalls the fateful meeting with Pilates: "He said, 'Well, stay with me five lessons, and if it doesn't get better or well, I'll give you your money back.' It was only $5 in those days. By the third lesson, it felt wonderful. I thought, This is pretty marvelous stuff." Seeing the value of the hundreds of movements Pilates had conceived, Kryzanowska kept going to his studio. "I was there all the time," she says. "And the next thing you knew, he was making me teach everybody."
That was in 1941, and ever since she has been teaching the method, just as she learned it from the master. Today she continues to pass along the legacy through Romana's Pilates, the Pilates teaching business she runs with her daughter Sari Mejia Santo and her granddaughter Daria Pace. Kryzanowska is a firm believer that Pilates, when taught correctly, is for everyone--especially those who are getting on in years. "When they have their first lesson, it's more for the teacher to see what their body's like, what it's willing to do and what exercises you would not do," says Kryzanowska, whose students include people with hip replacements, bad knees and a large variety of bad-back maladies. The technique is about developing "the powerhouse"--the muscles in the abdomen, buttocks and lower back that are the collective point of origin for all Pilates exercises. "I give people homework," she says, "like exercises to do in bed before you even put your feet on the floor in the morning. We don't pop 'em into a class and command them to do a hundred sit-ups!"
For Kryzanowska, her adolescent obsession has turned into a fountain of youth--something she gives to others. "I just do Pilates," she says. "I don't do anything else."