Kate Johnson Bio
Kate Johnson moved to NYC in the 70’s to pursue a career in dance. She worked with Hannah Kahn, Rosalind Newman, Elliot Feld, American Dance Machine, Paul Taylor and was a founding member of the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Kate has been a guest artist with New York City Ballet and was awarded a New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”) in 1988 and a Dance Magazine Award in 1994. Kate has set work of Paul Taylor on La Scala Theater Ballet and Miami City Ballet. She retired from dancing in the early 90’s and has taught Pilates for 20 years. Kate also is a certified iRest® teacher and teaches meditation out of her Brooklyn Pilates studio.
What made you go to KSG in the first place? How long did you stay?
I was introduced to Kathy Grant at [Henri] Bendel’s in 1982 by one of her students. I had just joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company and had sprained my ankle while rehearsing the one piece that I was performing that first season at City Center. Kathy made room for me in her schedule at the beginning or end of the day to get me safely through the season. She encouraged me to listen to my body and weigh that information with the pressures of the new job as well as my own fears of not being able to do my job.
Sitting on a low stool in front of me, my foot resting on balls that she was constantly rearranging, she would listen to my knee as she rolled my foot forward and back while periodically reaching up and slapping my midsection. Voodoo, chicken soup and tough love seamlessly combined in the inimitable Kathy Grant force. Her style of teaching combined a powerful intuition anchored in her experience as a dancer who had studied with Joe Pilates when she was recovering from an injury.
I worked with her on and off throughout my career and the birth of my son in 1994. I asked her to train me in 1996 during the period of the trademark lawsuit and she declined. She did say to just come in and listen and watch and take notes. So I did that for a year and when I started teaching I would consult her about certain students.
Is there something in your movement practice or teaching practice that came from or evolved from a movement or an image from KSG?
I continue to do variations on KSG’s pre-Pilates warm-ups with all of my students. Concentrating on the breath and small movements helps to focus at the beginning of the session and to introduce the language for cueing. Kathy used a lot of imagery: rolling balls of yarn, soup head, Ray Charles, doorknob and key, and baby birds to illustrate what she was trying to have you do. I like to find my own imagery to describe the feeling of the work, but still use a lot of the imagery she instructed with. One of the things she said to me was a clue to her teaching philosophy. She said to, “approach an exercise not with the goal of perfecting it, but to learn from it each time.” She was an artist always moving toward the truth and constantly finding something new.
Do you have a personal memory or story that you want to share?
Sometimes Kathy would talk about her career before Pilates as a dancer at the Zanzibar Club. I remember a story that she told about Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson at a club when she was dancing in the chorus for the various acts that performed there in the late 40s. Bill Robinson was performing at the club and had a reputation for being difficult to get along with so everyone was keeping his distance. During rehearsal, a telegram was delivered to him on stage and as he was looking at it Kathy intuited that he was unable to read it but embarrassed to ask for help. Somehow, she managed to offer to read it for him without making it seem like it was a problem other than dim lighting and he rewarded her by letting her be the featured dancer in his act at the club. I loved this story and could picture her in her early 20s unafraid and sassy finding her way in the eclectic New York dance world of the 40s and 50s. She had this incredible career dancing on Broadway, in Katherine Dunham’s company and as part of the founding team of Dance Theater of Harlem. She had so much history and experience and was passing all this on to dancers and non-dancers alike. She used her gifts of intuition and boldness to teach Pilates with the same inspiration she had lived her whole life.
What do you think Kathy Grant’s legacy is?
I visited Kathy with Blossom at the nursing home a short time before she died. She very pointedly asked us, “What about my legacy?” Her question has been on my mind for a while and I am so grateful to Blossom for this blog and for honoring Kathy’s memory through her own Bridge Pilates studio and workshops. I think that Kathy’s legacy is in all of the stories we tell about her and lessons we learned from her in her studio. Kathy was fluid and always welcoming the new to add to the old.
I remember when the trademark lawsuits were in full force and, while not liking the fact she was being sued for teaching Pilates, she wanted the work to be codified in some form. She wanted the springs to be always identifiable by their tension and length for particular exercises. She wanted there to be trainings in the work for future teachers. In her teaching, she was always creative and willing to make the exercise work for the person she was working with. Kathy was tough but she wasn’t a martinet. She expected you to give just as much as she was giving to the lesson and if she did not think that was happening…stand clear.
Teaching styles have changed but the job of communicating the work is still in Kathy’s example of submerging oneself in the experience of understanding it in one’s own body and passing it on. All of her students worked hard for the privilege of studying with her and I think that her legacy is embodied in all of us as we pass that privilege on.