It was a full house at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York Monday night as members of the Pilates and dance communities gathered to pay tribute to Kathleen Stanford Grant (1921-2010), a first-generation Pilates teacher who studied directly with Joseph Pilates and taught the Pilates method for more than 50 years. The celebratory evening was filled with laughter, dance, music and stories about the life and spirit of this multi-faceted woman who “dedicated her life to making all others dreams come true,” as Sarita Allen, one of her students, said. The celebration began with an African drumming processional and was followed by a mixture of dance performances, video footage and almost a dozen speeches from family members, students, colleagues and friends. For those who weren’t able to make it, I’d like to share some highlights from this special evening.
[Note: This is by no means a biography of Grant’s life and career. You can find more info about her here.]
Kathy, the Dancer
Before Grant became a Pilates teacher, she enjoyed an notable career as a dancer, choreographer and arts administrator. Ella Thompson Moore, Creative Director for the Charles Moore Dance Company, who met Grant in the 1950s, talked about their time together in New York’s nightclub scene, performing dances like “Trickeration” wearing heels and three-foot-tall plume hats. Moore said Grant was a wonderful dancer, “a wild thing—she could do anything!”
Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, also became friends with Grant in the ‘50s. He talked about how Grant, who was underage at the time, was adopted as a mascot of sorts by the chorus girls at the Cotton Club and learned their dances by watching from the wings. He joked about once telling Grant’s mother, who lived in Boston, that he would watch out for her in New York, “but Kathy ended up taking care of me.” Grant and Mitchell danced together in “Kiss Me Kate,” where they were the only two African-American cast members and thus were partners in every scene because mixing races onstage was controversial at the time. Mitchell turned to her for advice and help when he started Dance Theater of Harlem, where she served as its first executive director. “She was always behind me, supporting me, pushing me, showing me,” said Mitchell. When Grant’s dancing career was hindered by a lingering knee injury from a fall on a wet stage, it was Mitchell who referred her for rehab to Carola Trier, thus beginning her path as a Pilates teacher.
Teacher, Mentor, Mother
Grant’s supportive side was a common thread throughout the evening. As a Pilates teacher at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, for over 20 years, she taught thousands of young dancers about how to strengthen and protect their bodies, and how the Pilates principles could apply to their lives. Linda Tarnay, former chair of NYU’s dance department, recognized the importance of Grant’s work and was responsible for making Grant’s class mandatory for all students. “She never gave up on anybody, but sometimes you wished she would give up on you,” said Tarnay, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Many of the evening’s speakers said that Grant referred to her Pilates students as her children, and she became a special mentor and mother figure to many of them, despite her reputation for toughness. Dancer Keith Sabado, one of her “kids,” told of how Grant would come to all of his performances and wait to discuss the show with him afterwards, no matter how late it was. She was also a guiding force within her own family. Grant’s niece, Carol Brown Digovich, shared how “Aunt Kath” initiated her into the creative process by dancing with her as a child and encouraging her to explore books like “The Little Prince.”
Kathy, the Healer
In video footage shown that night, Grant said what she did was rehab in a time before there were physical therapists. She had a special gift for seeing what was wrong with a person’s body and worked tirelessly to help her students and clients—often with her own signature exercises, creative imagery and props made from household objects. “I had to create things because people had problems and they had nowhere to go,” she said.
Grant worked extremely hard and expected the same from her students. She took the subway to and from her home in Brooklyn every day, was at her studio early every morning, and a single session with her could last two to three hours, said Blossom Leilani Crawford, who assisted Grant at NYU for 10 years. She took daily notes on her classes and typed them up for the following day on a typewriter, “until they stopped fixing typewriters,” said Crawford. Once, at the beginning of a new school year, Tarnay said she asked Grant how she could bear to teach something as basic as the head lift again to new students. Grant responded: “Because I know if they get it, it will change their life.”
Digovich, Grant’s niece, reminded the crowd not to take their time with her aunt for granted: “I ask that you please pay it forward,” she said. “Because she gave everything she had.”
The speakers also reminisced about Grant’s playful sense of humor. In the video footage, we saw her bouncing up flights of stairs, teasing her young protégés huffing behind her. “She could tear me apart in an instant,” said Crawford, “but for every drop of sweat I left in that studio, I laughed twice as much.”
“Patient and furious” are a few of the words Tarnay used to describe Grant. “Complex,” “complicated,” “strong” and “tough” were also used throughout the evening. Few would dare to cross Grant, but Crawford described how, on a flight home from a Pilates convention, she finally found the nerve to say to her, “You know, you can be kind of mean.”
“I know,” said Grant.
When Crawford asked why, her mentor replied, “Because people need to remember my voice when I’m not there.”
Dances pieces performed during the memorial:
Tears Rolling (excerpt)
Elisa Monte Dance
Choreography: Elisa Monte
Balm in Gilead
Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble
Choreography: Arthur Mitchell
Forces of Nature Dance Theater
Choreographer: Abdel R. Salaam
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