Jeri, who walks up the flight of stairs at Groundfloor Exercise twice a week, is proud to declare she is one of the oldest members of the Pilates studio. “I’m over ninety, and I have been doing this for almost forty years. It has saved my body and my head an awful lot. ” A big believer in the power of Pilates, she is particularly fond of Groundfloor. “This is the real stuff – the whole room is just for Pilates, and we have the original equipment. ” She then exclaims, “I have been coming here since before people even knew who Joe Pilates was. ”Fran Lehen, the studio’s original owner, also now near ninety, still stops by to instruct some of her longtime clients. Fran opened her first Pilates studio in her apartment. It was there that she would begin building something from the “ground floor” and work her way up to achieving success not only for herself, but for those she instructed. Today, in addition to admiring Fran and appreciating her devotion to the art of Pilates and her clients, everyone at Groundfloor has a deep loyalty to its current owner, Joie Gregory. Joie started taking Pilates in 1994 while living in Santa Fe. When she returned to New York, she began researching Pilates studios. When Groundfloor was repeatedly mentioned as being the best, Joie became a client. She went on to become a teacher, followed by manager, and in 2002, when Fran decided to retire, Joie was waiting in the wings, ready to take the reins. In 2016, Groundfloor celebrated its fortieth year in Manhattan – making it one of the oldest Pilates centers in the city. “We have stood the test of time, ” Joie stated. When questioned as to how they have been so successful, she said that from the start, the philosophy has been to create an environment that welcomed everyone and encouraged them to help themselves. Whether it is a teenager being introduced to a new form of exercise, a retired football player who needs to readjust his workout, a breast cancer survivor, or a man or woman in their late eighties, Groundfloor is committed to offering its clients the best possible program to keep them healthy. “When I tore my meniscus (not at Pilates), ” Jeri offered, “the doctor didn’t suggest physical therapy. He said, ‘go back to Pilates. ’”
Training for an event, rehabbing from an injury, or just looking to stay in tip-top shape? Look no further than Dakota Personal Training & Pilates, an Upper West Side gym suited perfectly to those looking for one-on-one customized fitness plans. Owner Penny Smart has been in the fitness business for nearly 30 years — “I started working out as a teenager and got addicted to it, ” she jokes — and has tried her hand at everything from group fitness classes to working as an educator for fellow trainers. After finding her niche in personal training, she opened up her first studio on W 72nd in 2012, steadily building her client base and working with fellow trainers until the pandemic hit. “It was horrible, ” said Penny. “We were closed for five and a half months and our old landlord nearly put us out of business. ”But as Penny worked to rebuild after the quarantine, she found a sign of hope — literally. “One day on my way to work, I saw a sign on this building saying that there was a commercial space for rent, ” she told us. “It was my birthday, and I thought, ‘this has to be a sign! ’” She signed a lease on the space and began the process of moving in — lugging multitudes of large, unwieldy gym equipment up several flights of stairs and setting up a new studio. “What forced me here was bad, it’s been much better, ” she said of starting over. She’s been able to add a physical therapy station into the gym, allowing PT Karn Santikul to work in tandem with her training clients. Penny is now focused on working with an expanded roster of clients, from longtime Upper West Siders to younger folks with more work-from-home-flexibility. “I love the vastness of the people I get to meet in this neighborhood, ” said Penny. “Because of the adjacency of the neighborhood to the arts, I’m always surprised by what people do for a living. ”
The greatest treasures on the side streets often take the form of art studios, theaters, non-profits, innovative exercise spaces, and specialty lodging. I was delighted, therefore, to find all of these facilities inside the West Side YMCA. According to Wyndy Wilder Sloan, the senior director of the Y, I was not unlike numerous others who admitted to having had no idea that this extraordinary building existed on West 63rd. Sharing the fascinating history of the Y with me one morning while touring the building, Wyndy simply stated that not many people stroll down their street and those that do rarely notice what has been here since 1930. Wyndy was crowed that they have at least 5, 700 active members, 397 guest rooms, an off-Broadway theater, and an art space in addition to its vast array of fitness facilities. At the start, the Y even owned the McBurney School next door, which is still marked with a sign for "BOYS. " Wyndy informed me that the West Side Y is the largest YMCA in the country. My first stop on the tour was on the newly renovated tenth and eleventh floors to see the selection of guest rooms, which Wyndy described as "a hostel that is not a real hostel. " Wyndy shared with me that guests are frequently European travelers, mostly form the UK, with the average age between eighteen and twenty-four, but national youth groups, like the boy scouts, also take advantage of the facilities. Traipsing down the white walls marked with shapes in cheery bright colors and the names of countries from around the world, I peeked into a room and found a spotlessly clean bunk bed that had a view of Central Park. Descending down some flights, I went to the fitness floors, which were astonishing. There, I found enormous studios that offered classes from Aerobics to Zumba and everything in between. Learning that the YMCA "invented" basketball and volleyball, I gazed upon the spacious court encircled one floor up by an elevated track. When I commented on the spectacular racquetball courts, squash courts, and, particularly the original machinery still decorating the walls in the boxing room, Wyndy proudly admitted that they were available for promotional shoots. In the gym, I was met with one of the most enormous collection of ellipticals and treadmills I have ever seen. "You never have to wait for a machine, " Wyndy said. "We have every piece of equipment you can imagine, " and she went on to tell me that all Y's in the country lease their machines for three years so that they can easily update to new models. Through the clean, flower-filled women's locker room, I arrived at the magnificent pool. The space is a palace, decorated with red and yellow tiles in a stunning mosaic pattern. Wyndy explained that King Alfonso of Spain donated all the tiles to the Y as the building was being erected. Slipping inside to view the smaller pool - used more for classes and therapy sessions than for laps - was possibly even more extraordinary, with dazzling white and blue designs covering all four corners. Tearing myself away from the pools, I walked into the art annex to see a painting class in progress. Down the hall, students filled a ceramics studio that boasted two kilns. I now understood from where the cases full of colorful mugs for sale in the lobby hallway came. On my way to the "Little Theater, " which sported sloping bannisters and comfortable audience seating, I caught a glimpse of rounded traditional Spanish doors and more of the magnificent tiles in an event space named the "King Alfonso" room. After a whirlwind tour, where I saw so much original architecture, artistic craftsmanship, first-class facilities, and happy members, I was shocked that I had not heard more about the building as a lifelong New Yorker. Though I knew of its existence, I had no idea of all the valuable resources and facilities inside. Wyndy conceded that is a challenge that the West Side Y is trying to overcome: "When you're a landmark building on a side street, it's hard to maintain visibility. " It is, however, definitely worth seeking out. As Wyndy noted, "We are unique among other gyms because we are non-profit. When you sign up as a member, you know your money is going to a good cause. "