Tell us about your childhood. Angelina Jolie I was born in Tulsa, OK. My father worked for Shell Oil, so we moved around a lot and finally settled in Houston when I entered middle school. When I was two, my knees would give out when I ran. A forward-thinking physician suggested I take ballet to strengthen my legs. I loved dance, and my father also taught me to throw, kick and bat—I still have a mean arm. In high school, I continued dancing and was on the varsity volleyball and track teams and studied violin.
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I got really serious about dance when I enrolled at the University of Houston. There wasn’t a dance major, but the head of the department, Joanna Friesen, would bring in choreographers like Freddie Franklin and Bill Evans. I even took a master class with the Graham Company—Martha Graham liked my plié! I got a degree in physical education with a focus on dance and kinesiology. PS What did you want to do after college? Angelina Jolie I wanted to dance, teach dance and work with dancers who were injured. I married my first husband during college, when I was 21. We moved to South Carolina, and I joined a small company, the Robert Ivey Ballet. Shortly afterward, though, I seriously injured my back.
I tried drugs; I tried exercise; I tried physical therapy, but in those days, they didn’t know what they know now. So I ended up having my first back surgery when I was 21, but it didn’t help. In fact, it got worse, especially after an auto accident six months later. My cousin, a neurologist, thought a piece of chipped bone was causing the problem. An EMG showed I was losing function in my right leg, and I needed to have another surgery. The surgeon removed it just in time—it was severing a nerve. I did my own rehab, exercising three times a day, walking and swimming. After the second surgery, I was told I wouldn’t be able to have children or dance ever again. Hearing that was devastating, because those were the two things I wanted to do in my life. But I don’t like being told I can’t do something, so I began visualizing my strong back.
I eventually had four children. All were delivered by nurse midwives and without medication. And my last performance was when I was 36!
What did you do after the second surgery?
Angelina Jolie I called Joanna Friesen at the University of Houston, hoping for a teaching job. She hired me but also suggested I get my master’s. My degree was in education with an emphasis in dance, kinesiology, injury prevention and rehabilitation. During grad school, my husband and I divorced.
How did you discover Pilates?
Angelina Jolie As I was finishing my master’s, an academic advisor suggested I check out the Houston Ballet’s “body conditioning” program. A week later, I was learning Pilates on equipment made by Houston Ballet’s stage-set carpenters. My teacher was Richard Ballantine. He made many modifications for me because of the nerve damage in my back. I loved Pilates right away. It was the first time I could feel my back muscles working! But it was humbling. I had just finished my master’s degree. I thought I knew my muscles; I thought I knew their function, and there I was being asked to breathe, move and focus. Simultaneously! It was definitely a challenge. PS How did you end up becoming a teacher? Angelina Jolie Richard asked me to apprentice with him, and I agreed! Six months later, he announced he was leaving and suggested I study with Alan Herdman, who had originally set up the Houston Ballet’s program. Alan was coming back to Houston to open another studio. We hit it off immediately, and I ended up going to London to study with him. I learned so much: Alan taught me how to look at a body and modify any exercise to fit that body, instead of making that body fit the exercise. I studied with him for four months.