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Sonja Herbert Creates Sisterhood of Black Pilates Instructors

By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you should probably just make it yourself. That is the principle that Sonja Herbert was going by when she was looking for a community of Black women who were also Pilates enthusiasts and instructors. After teaching Pilates for 12 years and not seeing many Black women in that community, she decided to be the change she wanted to see. “I decided to start the group. I reached out to two friends of mine on Instagram. They gave me about fifty names,” she recalls. I started following them and then became Facebook friends.” Now that group has increased to over 300 people who live across the United States as well as abroad. Herbert explains, “They’re all over the world. We’ve got members from Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland. All Black women.”

Created by German fitness instructor Joseph Pilates, in the early twentieth century Pilates is an exercise system that according to Wikipedia, “Improves flexibility, builds strength and develops control and endurance in the entire body.” Popular for many years among dancers, it is particularly effective Herbert explains, “For overall core body strength. That means the trunk part of your body, like from your neck, down to your hips front and the back part of your neck, down your hips back. That’s your foundation and if the foundation is strong, then the rest of the body can move properly. Pilates will make everything else you do better. For instance it will help you do yoga better, but nothing but doing Pilates, will make you do Pilates better.”

Pilates can be done as a series of exercises on the floor or using machines created specially for it. Herbert became hooked after one class when her daughter’s ballet instructor Cynthia Shipley, formerly of the Baltimore Dance Theater, convinced her to give it a try.

Mainly through the use of Facebook and Instagram, Black Pilates instructors in Herbert’s community, network, mentor and provide each other with a source of support and inspiration. All instructors are either certified or are actively working toward certification. There are now two Facebook groups: one for instructors called Blackgirl Pilates (Instructors Only) and one for those looking for instructors called Black Girl Pilates Tribe. “As Black women teaching Pilates you’re not going to run into a hell of a lot of us nor are you going to run into a hell of a lot of Black clients either. We are in very White spaces. It’s pulling together all of this amazing talent and expertise but also giving each other support as Black women.” Herbert and some of the members are now developing their own certification program. “Our certification will be classic exercises that Joseph taught himself, with modern components.” Their certification will also include knowledge of the impact of two women of color on the history of Pilates. “Kathy Grant, a Black woman and Lolita San Miguel, who’s Puerto Rican,”  Herbert explains, “were certified by Joseph Pilates himself.”

Herbert at one point had to defend herself and the group against charges of reverse racism, going so far as writing an essay in a national magazine addressing the issue. Herbert says she wasn’t exactly shocked. “I wasn’t really surprised. I’ve had some well-meaning White people try to join the group who just want to support us but I’m like, ‘This is a safe space and you being here would make it unsafe for us.’ I had a few conversations in the initial part of starting a group and then after, I decided that it wouldn’t be good to have those conversations.”

The group meets annually in New York City for a huge mashup. In 2019, there will be an even bigger, international meeting taking place in Barcelona Spain. Excitedly Herbert shares, “I’ll be meeting a lot of women I’ve never met before.”

Trying to create what she jokingly terms “Pilates Wakanda,” Herbert is coordinating a number of smaller local meetings that will take place throughout the year in locations such as New York City, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Texas.

Herbert finds it hard to pinpoint just one great benefit she received from creating this community but said, “I’ve never really had the opportunity to have a lot of female friends and I consider this community, all of them, friends. I think for me, it’s a sisterhood and the feeling of safety that brings.”

This article originally appeared in The Afro.

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