Hillary turned her lifelong love of ballet and her injury-induced discovery of Pilates into a fulfilling teaching practice.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
I had had back issues for many years, during college in Boston, graduate school in London, and while working as an interior designer in New York City. A lifetime of dance, then three pregnancies, damaged my lower back. While I managed the pain through healthy living and exercise, there were times when the pain was really unbearable.
In 2002, I had a bad fall that caused me to fracture a vertebra and crush a disc in my lower back. I was in excruciating, truly, life-altering pain. I jumped through a lot of hoops to get into a study for a new type of operation. The doctors cut into my abdomen, traveled through my body and placed a titanium disc into my lower spine where I had crushed the soft tissue. They stabilized the vertebrae and replaced the soft tissue.
This injury was my real journey into a dedicated Pilates practice. Core strength was a critical part of my post-surgery recovery and physical therapy and imperative for my healing. It helped that I was already fit. I left physical therapy early and began Pilates in earnest.
When I couldn’t find a fitness class that was challenging enough for me, that was my “aha” moment.
My real “aha” moment came as a result of our move from Rye, NY to Madison, Connecticut. This was the right move for my husband’s work and for our kids, but I had grown up in Rye and the transition was very difficult for me. My family was tremendously supportive. They knew I was unhappy after leaving my job in design and that I was looking for something to do. I have always needed a purpose, and have always worked. Being a stay-at-home mother is hard, relentless, exhausting. I absolutely adore my kids but I needed more.
When I couldn’t find a fitness class that was challenging enough for me in my new community, that was my “aha” moment. I began getting my Pilates certifications at age 44.
What is your Next Act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I teach Pilates and Ballet to adults and children on the Connecticut Shoreline.
Teaching ballet came through Pilates. When I started teaching Pilates at New Haven Ballet, many of the ballet teachers were coming to my classes. Historically, Pilates has been rehab for dancers. I had a background in dance, with years in the studio as a child and as an adult, which is why I was able to start teaching beginning ballet. Still, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would become a ballet teacher.
What challenges did you encounter on your journey to your Next Act?
When I began my certification training, I went to Power Pilates in New York City and started with beginner mat. There were days when it was really hard, but I really wanted it, so I kept pushing. There were all kinds of people in my first certification class: fitness trainers, a ballerina, YMCA instructors… It doesn’t matter to me now that I was in a class with primarily younger people, but at the time, yes, it did. I was, however, very pleased with my progress and I think honestly I was the best in the class.
Getting hired was my biggest obstacle. I was terrified I never would. I remember the first class I ever taught; I was a nervous wreck. Halfway through, I said to myself “Have fun, relax, enjoy this” and I have never looked back. I am very good at what I do; I don’t say that lightly because there are bad teachers. In a gym setting you will encounter a variety of people who call themselves Pilates instructors but in truth are not. They may only have taken a 72-hour weekend certification.
I take Pilates seriously but I approach it as I do everything in my life, with a tremendous sense of humor and joy. Once I started teaching, my business just took off and now I have a wonderful following and I teach in many studios with many genres throughout Connecticut.
Once I am in the studio, I am truly happy. There is nowhere I would rather be.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
I never thought about giving up. I was not only determined, but I was happy. I love teaching. There are times when sheer exhaustion gets the better of me but once I am in the studio, I am truly happy. There is nowhere I would rather be.
Reinventing yourself, taking the plunge without financial security, is terrifying for most people, especially if you need to bring in money for the household. I was lucky because my husband was able (for the most part) to maintain our lifestyle while I built up my reputation.
My daughters were inspirational: Two of them are very talented dancers and one is a gifted athlete. Being able to share their passion and joy for the art of ballet and the reward of sports has been a great experience for our whole family.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Life experience is invaluable: You have earned your stripes. Be who you are. Who you are is entirely up to you. I really truly believe that.
Fear is the liar: If you are afraid, you will fail. A little fear is good but keep it at a distance. Without fear people become complacent; they stop striving to be better. You have got to push through or you won’t try. Transitions are hard and scary but without change, nothing changes.
Figure out what you want to do and get busy! There are endless resources on the Internet. Don’t think “It’s already been done,” or “I’m not the one to do that.” Go ahead – jump!
Transitions are hard and scary but without change, nothing changes.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Be fit before you begin. Know your stuff and keep an open mind. Pilates is a lifestyle; it’s not just an exercise routine. It’s about breath, control, flow.
It takes a lot to get certified. You need to prove a certain number hours for each level and then on the apparatus. It took me a year to go all the way through and I’m not certified on the Cadillac equipment yet.
Learn all you can about Kinesiology, nutrition and anatomy: This will make you a better teacher. After you are certified, it’s really important to go back for continuing education. Like anything else, there are trends with Pilates and it’s important to stay on top of changes in the field. I research and take classes all the time to keep my teaching fresh.
Pilates instructors have anatomical knowledge and we often work with injured clients. I have helped many breast cancer survivors to get back into exercise. I have helped people recoup from back surgery, knee injuries and other skeletal breaks. I work with pre-professional and professional ballerinas, ordinary folks, as well as serious athletes. Each class is designed and geared specifically for the students in it.
It’s hard to make money doing this; that is not why I do it. My passion for dance and Pilates is what drives me. Pilates studios in my area pay anywhere from $30 to $45 per hour. It’s important for you to know that the only way to make money doing this is to own a studio and the building it occupies. Offering classes at flexible times, providing babysitting, and being open all the prime hours (6-11am and 6-9pm) are critical to creating a lucrative business.
I have chosen to be an independent contractor. I often think about opening a studio but I don’t want to fight the overhead and deal with the worry that would accompany owning my own business. Working for whom I want to, when I want to, and teaching the classes I enjoy, all this gives me tremendous independence. That is very important to me.
What resources do you recommend?
These are highly respected schools that teach the truest form of Pilates:
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another Next Act in your future?
I’m not sure. I know that there is something coming though, I feel the winds of change. Maybe a book, a series of articles about Pilates and dance/ballet (they compliment each other so well). My newest fascination and field of study is nutrition. I am considering writing something about fueling the body as we age, fueling the body for Pilates or dance. I don’t know yet!
I am happy now in Connecticut. We live in a quiet, rural, community near Long Island Sound. We have what we need and we are content. It took a long time, 10 years, for me to say that. I detested Connecticut for a long time, such a waste of energy and time. Pilates has added another element to my family’s lifestyle. Everyone goes, including my husband, the least flexible of us all!
One of my most rewarding experiences has been teaching Pilates to non-athletes at our local high school. Madison, CT is a very athletic community, with a lot of focus on football, lacrosse, and other sports. I have the privilege of being a senior gym elective for the kids who aren’t athletes. The teens I meet for 6 weeks each trimester are math-letes, science geeks, artists, history buffs. I get them moving and motivate them; we almost always become friends. It’s a blessing.
Contact Hillary Simmers Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org and Hillary Kennedy Pilates Professional on Facebook
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