Career Evolution and Transitions
By Lesley A. Powell, PMA®-CPT
If I were to write one long headline to describe where I am in my life and career right now, it would have to be, “Lesley A. Powell brings together her unique career as a dancer, choreographer, world acclaimed Pilates instructor, movement educator, and artist.”
My life has always been about the body. It first started with dancing. I always wanted to dance. In first or second grade, my mom agreed to dance class—as long as I made the phone call to the dance teacher, but I was too shy to do it.
Once I was in junior high school I met some people who were taking dance classes. My first dance teacher just did improvisation work. She taught a tiny bit of technique and then all creative work.
I studied at Temple University while still a high school student. But eager to leave home and have the real college experience, I chose the University of Wisconsin. The dance department wasn’t great, but in Madison I found a school to learn mime. Dr. Reid Gilbert changed my life!
At the mime school you had to create your own work. He had this wonderful way of giving you support to create while he pushed you to do better. At a final concert there that year, I realized I wanted to be a choreographer, and to continue with dance. Thus, I returned to Temple and their dance department.
I was definitely more interested in being a choreographer than a dancer. I started dancing with grad students who introduced me to Laban. His work about space harmony was how I thought about choreography. At the American Dance Festival I took an Effort Shape class (Laban) and that class changed how I performed my solo there. It was one of those magical moments in my life.
NYC or Bust
Post graduation I moved to New York City where I was dancing and choreographing, and cleaning apartments and bartending to keep things going. I also was hired, and then fired from a physical fitness job. I was fired from it for not teaching a “hard enough” class. At that moment I decided I would never teach again unless I loved what I taught.
I then went to the Laban Institute of Movement Studies to study Space Harmony. It definitely enriched my choreography. One of my colleagues there, Eveline Erni (a physical therapist in NYC), worked for an osteopath who specialized in sports and dance patients. She got me a job within Dr. Bacharach’s Osteopathic Center for Sports and Dance Medicine’s fitness program for injured clients. This is where I learned about function and dysfunction. Watching their dysfunction in doing fundamental movement taught me about me. This led me back to the fitness world with a specialty!
Roberta Wein, one of the physical therapists I worked for at Dr. Bacharach’s, left to be a physical therapist at Romana Kryzanowska’s Pilates studio. JRW Physical Therapy was born from that, and they brought many of Romana’s teachers with them after the studio closed.
Meanwhile, I was getting frustrated with the fitness environment. I was looking into Pilates and Gyrotonic when Roberta called. She was having an issue with the Pilates teachers teaching the injured population. They paid me to learn to teach Pilates.
My teacher was Cary Reagan. She was always really supportive of all parts of my work – including allowing the Laban work into my teaching practice. Through a client, a dancer and Laban colleague, I was tapped for a job teaching dance and choreography at Drew University. I was adjunct faculty there from 1991-2001, teaching classes in modern dance, dance history, and choreography.
At the same time, I started teaching at Leslie Kaminoff’s studio. I was teaching a movement class and developed quite a following there — including an attorney who pushed me to open my own place. I naively thought that by opening a studio and consolidating all my clients I would have more time to work on choreography.
The Movements Afoot Years
I was teaching Physioball® classes at the studio and started sending press releases out to promote them. I received international recognition for this teaching. Eventually, Shape magazine did a five-page article on me! It was wonderful.
If you don’t own the building your space is in, you are at the mercy of your landlords, so when one studio space sold out from under us, we moved to 30th Street. At that same time, Joan Breibart invited me to be on the faculty of the PhysicalMind teacher training program. Joan was how I got involved in gait. I was fortunate to work with Marika Molnar to help create a “Pilates Stand” course and book. My studies with Marika Molnar, Irene Dowd, Jean Claude West and Shelley Studdenberg sparked my interest in gait.
Due to some health problems, I gave up my position at Drew to run the studio full time. That was the end of my career as a choreographer.
I had started teaching teachers in ‘87/88 and have always worked on teaching teachers about the body. When we were asked to develop a program for the Japanese I started working on a manual and that lead me back to studying drawing — a passion in high school.
I started with Nicki Orbach, Anatomy for Artists, at the Arts Students league. Nicki opened me back to my creative side. I wanted to work with color – and water color seemed like the best option (oils in my apartment!?). I studied at the 92nd Street Y and then at the National Academy of Art in NYC with Kamilla Talbot. As I allowed myself to be freer with my art, I returned to my creative process.
While painting and running the studio, I also worked with FusionFitness online in creating teacher videos about the body and Pilates. I wanted to teach anatomy for them, but getting permission for the pictures was all but impossible. That’s how I decided to start to paint anatomy. But unlike the anatomy books, I wanted to show the motion. Anatomy Dances (the anatomy video series I’m developing for FusionFitness) came from all of that.
I always kept hoping I could get the studio strong enough to hire a full-time manager and focus more on teacher education. It wasn’t happening and I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. I knew money was coming in but I was having a hard time paying bills and meeting payroll. In 2012, after years of great luck with my office staff, I had the unfortunate experience of an incident of serious employee fraud. This robbed me of my ability to trust on some basic business issues and forced me to take over even more of the business-end tasks.
The Decision to Sell
My brother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. His being sick has changed my life. I put the studio on the market and before it sold, he died. I was able to be there for him, but not in the way I had hoped. And it made me realize how much I needed a change. After 21 years in business, I closed Movements Afoot in 2014.
In some ways this past year has been the best of my life. Now that I don’t have the studio, I’m back studying with Irene Dowd. I’m teaching with and collaborating with amazing people from all walks of my life. I’ve studied with Marie-José Blom, made a trip to meet Phillip Beach, and I’ve been pushed further in my research.
My goals this next year are exciting! I started a draft on Laban’s Space Harmony and Bartenieff Fundamentals a decade ago. This year I want to research Irmagard Bartenieff materials to complete my writing. Laban’s work was truly revolutionary for its time and is in sync with the new information coming out on Biotensegrity. I’ve also started oil painting and I’m starting to sell my work!
The Challenge of this Transition
What is the hardest part of transitioning? I’ve always been a mover. There is a certain tightness I feel that I didn’t feel 10 years ago, and I’m moving every day. If I’m going through this, what about clients who aren’t moving every day?
In this CrossFit culture of killing your body you might have the illusion of youth, but we must keep things moving and flowing and our joints healthy. Looking at the fascial work, everything is moving and flowing. Making something rigid and hard could have a consequence someplace else.
Thanks also to the PMA in publishing this in their current newsletter.