'I'm trying to keep Joe's dream alive': Pilates devotees fight over their exercise guru's legacy

AuthorKatherine Rosman
Published date24 October 2022
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
The fight started on social media more than a year ago and has since moved to the US federal court. At issue is who has the right to share certain vintage photographs of the barrel-chested Pilates, who died in 1967 at 83 years old, as well as key materials related to his highly specific teachings

On one side of the dispute is Sean P Gallagher, a physical therapist who runs a Pilates teacher training business. He says he is the rightful owner of the copyright to more than 1,000 photographs that once belonged to Pilates and his wife, Clara, as well as a trove of flyers, manuscripts, 8mm films and other materials. Gallagher's supporters describe him as a careful steward of the Pilates founder's teachings and public image.

His opponents include Pilates instructors who say that 64-year-old Gallagher has unfairly stemmed the flow of Pilates-related materials, much of which can be found online, by lodging complaints about their posting images on social media and threatening or filing lawsuits. In some cases, Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, has shut down the Instagram accounts of people who have been the subjects of Gallagher's complaints.

Heather Erdmann, a Pilates instructor and studio owner in Houston, was one of the people whose Instagram accounts were taken down. She said she wanted to share pictures of Pilates in action with her followers because there was no substitute for showing how the method's founder executed his moves. "How he put his hand and where he put his foot and where he was looking are very important details to us," Erdmann says.

In February, Gallagher filed a copyright infringement and unfair competition lawsuit against Mary Sullivan Kelly, the owner of True Pilates Boston, a studio in Newton, Massachusetts, claiming that she had used materials owned by him and his company, Richtone Design Group, to market her business without his permission. He cited two images shared by Kelly on social media. Kelly, who declined to comment for this article, filed a countersuit, arguing that Gallagher did not hold the copyrights to the photographs in question. Both lawsuits are pending.

I'm trying to keep Joe's dream alive

Sean Gallagher

Kelly's supporters have raised nearly $60,000 (€61,258) on the fundraising platform GoFundMe to help with her legal costs. In asking for donations, the Pilates instructors and students who organised the fundraising effort said that "the simple act of sharing vintage Pilates photographs and materials – all of them widely seen and shared in the past – is under attack".

Gallagher, who started practising Pilates in the late 1980s, says he sees himself as a protector of Pilates' legacy. "I'm trying to keep Joe's dream alive," he says.

The rift in the Pilates community reflects a seeming contradiction in Pilates' character. He was an exacting teacher who demanded that his students follow his instructions with precision. And yet he wanted his system, which he called Contrology, to spread far and wide.

A spiritual godfather to the fitness enthusiasts who chronicle their workouts on social media, Pilates posed for countless photographs as he went through his routines. Other pictures showed him outside the gym, like one in which he appears with his wife at his side, standing on his skis. Such images circulated among Pilates adherents for decades. During the pandemic's shutdown months, when fitness communities moved online, the photos were shared more widely.

Pilates grew up in a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany, where he developed an interest in gymnastics, says Cathy Strack, a Pilates instructor and the author of Get to Know Joe Pilates. Around 1913, he left Germany for...

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