From Ballet to Pilates and the Journey in Between: Interview with Mari Kõiv

Every Wednesday morning, for half an hour before class, I have the pleasure of taking part in Mari Kõiv’s Pilates class. Mari has been teaching at the Estonian National Ballet for the last 9 years. She is full of life and passion for both what she is teaching and who she is teaching. She eagerly keeps up to date with rapidly developing dance/sports science, making those short thirty minutes very interesting and full of new information. But I think the thing that sets Mari apart from most Pilates instructors is the fact that she was a dancer herself. 

Mari’s first experience with dance was actually not with ballet but with Estonian folk dancing. But her mother, knowing that she’d quickly grow tired of it and needed a greater challenge, suggested auditioning for the Estonian National Ballet School. But at age 10, Mari, having no intention of becoming a ballerina decided against it, though she passed the audition. Wanting to pursue her academics more seriously, she decided to remain in her normal school and join a private ballet studio on the side. But even then, after three years, Mari told her ballet teacher that she wanted to stop dancing.

“After three years in ballet school, I told my teacher, ‘I want to quit. I want to be a lawyer, I don’t want to be a ballet dancer. And then my teacher said, ‘Ok, but you can still do the ballet school and do the normal school and when you finish with both then you can be a lawyer if you want to.’ Then he understood that he needed to hook me someway. He needs to figure out a way to get this girl to the ballet world. So then I began to dance a lot of things; he sent me to different workshops, competitions, festivals, performing all over. This, I know is more common in the west, but in Estonia, in the ’90s, nobody went anywhere. It really gave me the opportunity to see the ballet world outside of Estonia.”

Needless to say, after five more years of normal school and ballet school Mari did get hooked and decided she wanted to pursue ballet as a career. 

Though Mari had a lot of exposure to the ballet industry outside of Estonia she knew she wanted to dance in her country. She decided to join the Vanemuine Ballet Company in Tartu, Estonia, but kept her doors open for new experiences abroad.

“I went to New York for a competition and then got a scholarship to study at Joffery. So I lived a year in New York studying there, then after Joffery I actually decided to audition for ABT, but Kevin Mackenzie, the director, never came to see the class! I was like, ugh, too bad. And then I did some other auditions, and I did get a spot, but I knew that if I’m going to live in the states I want to live in New York. But even then I started to feel, can I imagine my life in New York? Do I see myself raising kids here or having a family? And that answer was no. I always knew, even when I was dancing, I wanted to have kids and a family.

But then, a day before my flight back, ABT called me and said, ‘can you come and do the audition again?’ So I went, and Kevin came to see the class, and we had a conversation after class, and he told me he wanted to watch me more! So then I had to make a big choice, knowing my flight home was the next day. I had made the decision in my head, but this was like a chance to remake the decision and confirm it. So I chose to go home, and I have never regretted it! And the reason for that is the kids and the life I have now.”

Upon returning to Estonia, she continued dancing at Vanemuine Ballet for a total of 8 seasons. There she got to dance in every role she ever wanted and excelled in her position. But with the change of staff, came also a change of atmosphere, and with the added factors of all her friends moving on to new careers, and her herself ready to start a family, Mari decided to retire.

With early retirement often comes the big questions, “Why did you retire? Why did you stop?”

“I knew I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to stay in Estonia because I wasn’t ready to face everyone’s questions. I wasn’t ready. So I thought, my whole life I’ve been dealing with the human body, so it would be nice to continue working with it. Then I remembered the pilates that I studied in Joffery! So after a while, I discovered an amazing course in Canada that provided all I wanted. So in September 2007 I went to Canada, and Came back to Tallinn in May.”

As soon as she returned to Tallinn she started teaching everywhere, including the Estonian National Ballet. A year later, she and a former colleague opened their own studio that they ran for 12 years. Now Mari enjoys having more time at home with the kids, giving private classes, her own group classes and working with dancers. 

Working with dancers is special because Mari gets to pass on information to us that she wishes she had when she was dancing.

“I remember sitting in anatomy class, studying Pilates, I was like, why didn’t I know this before when I was dancing? We had anatomy in school, but it is not dance-specific. And science develops each year! You have to keep up with it. I don’t do classical Pilates, because I take many different styles with different teachers. Also with Covid, you can take all these online classes with some of the best teachers in the world.”

There are so many reasons dancers should do Pilates, but Mari explains her main arguments for it.

“For the dancer, the body is the tool with which you are working. Also for the sportspeople. That’s your instrument. You have to know it. You have to know the anatomy, how it works, and you have to take care of it. This will help you dance healthier and longer. Pilates is a way of working that will teach you to know your own body better; to feel it, learn how it works. All of this, strength training, cardio, Pilates are part of ballet basics that help you become a good dancer.”

I joked with Mari about how her classes always expose how uneven or imbalanced I am in terms of strength or range of movement. She continued to explain how noticing those things are also key to injury prevention.

“Many injuries come because of imbalances that go unnoticed for too long. When you’re laying on the mat compare your left side to the right. Is it tighter? Is it more flexible? See how it is, and go with that information and work accordingly. Find exercises, treatments that will fix it or correct bad habits. But even just the awareness will help you start fixing it subconsciously. Even, for example, for some people the femur bones, though in the same body, can be a bit different, and that can bother you, but if you know it, it will help you work with your body accordingly.”

Mari’s biggest advice for dancers is just that, really listening to your body and learn about it. Learn anatomy. 

“When you know the theory, it’s easy to understand and apply it practically.”

Don’t just sit in the splits on your phone as a warm-up, but do the Pilates exercises, let it show you what is out of place, and then let it help you fix and correct it. No doubt it will lead you to become a healthier and happier dancer. 

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