Cheryl Montelle's Bio
Cheryl Montelle was a dancer who studied Pilates with Kathy Grant from 1977 to 1985, and started teaching Pilates herself 31 years ago in 1987. Thanks to Kathy, Cheryl met Jillian Hessel with whom she studied and subsequently taught on behalf of for seven years before opening her own business in 1993. She has taught in the dance department of Cal Arts and led numerous master classes and workshops. Cheryl also loves hosting small teacher-training workshops with teachers who inspire her to continue learning. She is a member of the PMA, writes, produces spoken word events, runs a non-profit for veterans called Mil-Tree (Mil-tree.org) and lives in both Los Angeles and Joshua Tree.
What made you go to KSG in the first place? How long did you stay?
It was 1977, I was 18 years old, and I was on scholarship at the Alvin Ailey School. One of the dancers from the Alvin Ailey second company said something like, “I think you need to come to my gym with me. I think Kathy could help your back.” I had no idea that there was something wrong with my back, but when an Alvin Ailey dancer invites you to go with her to her gym, you go. I walked in and this petite, freckled, red-headed African American woman in a floral jumpsuit looked up from her scheduling book, looked me up and down, had me turn around and do a standing roll down in front of her. Once I was standing up again, she sort of mumbled, “What time can you come in?” It had to be early before my classes so I made an appointment for 8 am on the Tuesday of the following week, and I went regularly two or three times a week until 1985 or so.
Did KSG ever make up an exercise for you? If so, what was it? Do you still do it?
I had functional scoliosis, and there were several dancers and clients that had some form of that. Kathy was always creative and she taught me one lung breathing to inhale into the concave side, breathing space into the ribs and the lung. She also had me do a number of exercises holding the magic circle. I would place the pad of the circle on the convex side of my back at the ribs holding the ring under my armpit with my bicep pressed against the opposite pad of the magic circle. I could also do the same thing on the concave side and try to breathe into the magic circle. You could use it both ways. I recall using it with footwork, and one arm hug a tree or rowing.
Is there something in your movement practice or teaching practice that came from or evolved from a movement or an image from Kathy Grant?
I am an intuitive teacher and I am very hands on. I believe I got that from Kathy. I have been known to poke my clients and that is definitely from Kathy. In essence, she was able to teach me how to work so deeply into the core using the breath that even when I started teaching, before Pilates certificates even existed, even before I became certified in Fitness at UCLA, I had an understanding of how to help my first clients move from their core because I could feel it in my own. I am also a direct, no-nonsense teacher (with a sense of humor) and I have a feeling l got that from Kathy as well.
Do you recall a correction she gave to you? Or some comments she had about you and your body?
When I was on the road doing dinner theater one year, she said to join the gym, use the pool and practice the butterfly stroke. I swam a lot during my stay and did many laps of the butterfly and my back completely evened out! I was amazed. She used to poke me a lot around the ribs and lower abdominal area, basically to engage more deeply. When I broke my foot, she told me in no uncertain terms, “Do not limp into my gym. If you do, I will throw you out.” Therefore, I didn’t limp because I was too scared of Kathy to do so. Even when she wasn’t around, I could hear her voice in my head, “Do Not Limp!”
Do you have a personal memory or story you would like to share?
There are many, I will never forget her story of how she met her husband, Jim Grant, at an NAACP event and how she strutted across the ballroom floor slowly just for his benefit. She was also in musical theater, as I was, and it turns out that we both worked with the same conductor. He was a character. We compared notes and stories about him and a few chuckles. When I moved away and would visit NYC, I always made time to see Kathy. I fondly remember sitting at a Thai Restaurant on Ave A in the Village sipping some exotic drink that she ordered us and listening to stories about her days in the dance world or working with Joe Pilates or about her son Malik for hours. My nickname is Motor, but I never got a word in edgewise. I just listened, nodded my head ‘yes’ and enjoyed myself thoroughly. When I brought my young daughter to her studio at Tisch many years later, she got all the balls out so Lily could play with them. Kathy had such a glint in her eye when she watched my daughter play and Lily was at ease with Kathy from the get-go.
Here is a long one which is pretty funny:
Jillian and I both got married about a month apart. Kathy called me and said “I can’t come to both weddings so I’m going to come to Jillian’s, but I am going to stay with you.” I was married first and just as I sat down to eat at my wedding reception a waiter came up and told me I had a long distance call. It was Kathy wishing me congratulations -- she didn’t miss a beat -- she was with me regardless of being so far away.
During her stay with us for Jillian’s wedding, I had to teach my client Frank at the house. I asked Kathy if she would like to participate in teaching him as he was rather advanced and a fun client to throw new exercises at. I thought she might enjoy working with him. “Oh no honey, I’m on vacation. I do not want to teach on my vacation. You go along and do your thing.”
She went out on my balcony to read. Frank, a fit, good-looking man in his mid-30s came and was complaining of a pulled hamstring when he did certain stretches. I went outside to ask Kathy if she had any advise, and there I found her smoking one of her dark, thin cigarettes--I think they were called Mores. She looked at me sort of cock-eyed as she elegantly exhaled smoke, put out her cigarette, and followed me into the room. She showed us a very subtle hamstring exercise, gently slapping and poking Frank and communicating in her stern voice when he didn’t do it right. She proceeded to teach the rest of the lesson. Frank was amused and delighted that she took such an interest and his leg felt was as good as new when he left. In his next lesson, he told me he now understood where I got my technique and mannerisms while teaching. He said every time I poke him, he’s going to think of Kathy.
What do you think is an important thing for people to remember about Kathy?
In regards to teaching exercise, she always made sure you knew that if she made up an exercise or modified one, she would say, “This is not Joe Pilates, this is Kathy Grant,” so that when someone went somewhere else to study they knew the difference between what he originally taught and what she made up or adjusted for the student. For me, the most important thing to remember is that Kathy cared. She cared a lot about her students and clients and that she worked hard to help each and every one. She had a great sense of humor and she was a wonderful story-teller. I studied with her such a long time ago. I am sure others can be more specific about her teaching style, but I remember the person. She was direct, honest, and playful.
How do you think Kathy would feel about the current atmosphere of the Pilates world?
I think she would find it very interesting. Some of it, she wouldn’t like at all, like classes that don’t properly explain how to move from within and with breath. I don’t know if she would like all the group reformer classes, but I can see some of the hybrid pilates and innovations interesting her. Other more commercial aspects would make her roll her eyes and shake her head.
If you could ask Kathy one more question, or say one more thing to her, what would it be?
I would just say thank you and I love you. Thank you for taking the time with me and teaching me how to move from within, from the core and the breath, for rehabbing my broken foot. For believing in me and being not only my mentor but my friend.
How do you think Kathy would want to be remembered today? Or what do you think Kathy Grant's legacy is?
I think she was an intuitive innovator. I cannot speak for Kathy, but if I dared to do so, I think she would want to be remembered for not only being creative with her exercises but also for her intuitive nature and ‘knowing’. She had a profound sense of the body and what she didn’t know about she studied and learned. She also learned by experimenting, trying new things. She could feel into a situation, into a body, and know how to teach or speak to that body to come into alignment. No one was better at rehabilitating an injury. She was amazing.