Life in Motion
By Sophie Nelson
Photographs by Nicole Wolf
Nancy Etnier of Portland Pilates Brings Strength of Body and Mind to Maine
Nancy Etnier first encountered Pilates as a dance student at SUNY Purchase. She took mat classes taught by Romana Kryzanoswka, the protégé of inventor Joseph Pilates, and found the exercises so effective she memorized them and returned to them again and again throughout her time as a member of Portland’s Ram Island Dance Company. In 1995, Etnier returned to New York to become certified in the Pilates Method with Kryzanowska, and two years later she opened the first Pilates studio in Maine. For nearly two decades now, she has worked with countless clients and seen numerous trainees-turned-trainers through Portland Pilates. As Pilates gained popularity throughout the 2000s and many instructors began to deviate from the standard model, Etnier continued to emphasize quality of motion over quantity of reps. She stresses proper alignment and breathing patterns, and promotes Pilates as a system of exercise with the power to alter a person’s life for the better, the stronger, and the longer.
I’ve seen the infomercials and even taken a few classes, but when I meet Etnier I don’t feel that I have a good handle on what Pilates is all about. She greets me in the doorway of her studio, face aglow, box-cut sweater swinging around her narrow hips. Soon into our conversation I ask, “How do you explain Pilates to someone who has no clue what it is?” and her answer leads me to a physical understanding of Pilates that feels fundamental to its proper practice.
To begin her explanation, she stands up perfectly straight. She shakes her short dark hair back from her face and holds her hands the way dancers do, with the wrists supporting gorgeous angles of hand and forearm and the middle finger and thumb almost touching. Instead of extending her arms, she brings her budding hands to her sternum. She takes a breath and her rib cage expands. “It’s about lengthening the body while building a support system around it.” She frowns; that’s not quite right. “It’s really hard to put Pilates into words,” she says, leading me toward the Cadillac machine. I listen and watch. I try to touch my belly button to my spine, as she instructs me to, and the muscles of my stomach seem to rearrange like a picture in a kaleidoscope. Making use of resistance springs attached to the Cadillac, she encourages me to extend from that centered sensation, and I feel something—a simultaneous inwardness and outwardness. “That’s it!” she says.
That’s it. That’s why Nancy Etnier comes so highly recommended by so many people. That’s why some of her clients have been with her since the beginning. Just as she is telling me about some of them, her cell rings. Etnier looks at the caller ID and laughs, flips open her phone. “I was just talking about you,” she says, offering me a wink.
She moves gracefully around her studio, a modest and cozy space on the second floor of a shopping plaza behind a Burger King. It’s late afternoon and sun pours through the row of west-facing windows, blackening the profile of bare branches, A-frame rooftops, and chimneys that make up the Deering neighborhood beyond Forest Avenue. Portland Pilates used to occupy a large industrial space with high ceilings, wood floors, and exposed brick walls but eventually Etnier outgrew it: “It just didn’t feel right for me anymore. I’m in a different place now.” I admire her gumption—some are sensitive enough to recognize when a certain kind of success doesn’t sit right, but few act on it. It’s a matter of authenticity, she explains. “It’s too personal and too direct of a thing to not be connected to yourself while doing. It doesn’t sit right with the client either—they can feel your vibe, that insecurity.” These days she’s happily settled in this “womb” of a room with her business partner, Susan Gates. Gates appears in the middle of our interview, all smiles and apologies. She tries to duck out, but Nancy asks her to stay, and while we continue our chat Susan moves through a series of exercises in the fading light.
Etnier’s clients appreciate her expertise, certainly, but her success as a teacher is the result of much more than that. For one thing, Nancy Etnier is exceptionally generous with her attention and affection. And she’s not so narrow-minded to think that wellness is necessarily achieved through Pilates alone. Her own sense of well-being comes from many different sources. She loves walking at a good clip to music near her home in Cape Elizabeth, breathing fresh air and singing under her breath. She believes music to be “the greatest gift” and that she “could do nothing without her higher power.” Her joie de vivre is infectious and hard-earned; it motivates rather than intimidates.
In the end, Etnier’s mission comes down to a call for movement, a greater understanding of our bodies through intentional movement, but also a physical free-for-all. “I think everyone has an urge to be graceful in their bodies. And you don’t have to be a dancer to be graceful. You just have to slow down enough and move with flow and that will broaden your experience of yourself,” she says. “When you’re extending into space, it just feels good for your spirit.”