Twenty-two years is a fair stint in any career, but for Eleanor Brannigan, owner of Flexelle Pilates in Clonmel: “Dance! That’s all I did since I was small. I wasn’t good at sports, soccer or Gaelic football, but dancing and gymnastics were my passion. So I knew that is what I would do after school.”

Although her ballet training began at three, her first teacher retired and Eleanor went to a gymnastics school instead. When this school also opened a dance school, she followed back into dance and stayed dancing right up to completing her Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) qualifications.

It’s like Fame, right?

I confess that all I know, I learned from movies – to which she replies, laughing: “Oh yes, college is just like Fame, we get together and sing at lunchtime.”

While professional dance is a route taken by many, the course Eleanor choose at Inchicore College focused on teacher training, a profession she discovered she was adept at and had a passion for.

“In college, I got a job teaching and realised – I actually love this. I was naturally good at it from day one so I stayed in Dublin for another nine years teaching.”

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

Having trained through her early years in modern dance, in college she was “thrown in the deep end” to learn ballet from scratch again, but as she taught, her love for it returned.

“I retrained with the Royal Academy of Dance at the University of Surrey and did my ballet qualifications there. Your ballet is your basic, the foundation of all dance styles. If you’ve got your ballet, that gives you that proper technique, that great style, that engagement through the body that you can take into any genre,” she says.

Reflecting on training workshops she did with US hip-hop dancers, she says: “They’ll give you these hip-hop moves and then say, ‘now into your plié,’ you would not expect it, but their foundation is from their ballet background, too.”

Eleanor Brannigan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

A move to Kilkenny saw Eleanor’s own dance school business blossom. At its height, she was operating three schools in three locations and for 15 years, she taught dance. Over that time, dance changed and attitudes toward it changed, she remarks.

“Very few parents say: ‘I want my child to dance as a career.’ They are letting their children decide, but giving them options. The shows, both for me and for the kids, were the highlight of the school year. They do have the option of exams, and they enjoy that sense of achievement – but definitely, the shows – once they got on stage – you could see them shine. For a lot of the kids, they didn’t like going out on the soccer pitch or the GAA pitch. Those shows were their arena – their opportunity to show what they could do to everybody.”

From a body image perspective, I query, based on my limited movie-based knowledge, if the dance world is a positive place for young women.

Eleanor Brannigan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

“Way back, when you trained – and at college – you were weighed. It’s not done any more and there is a lot more focus on your nutrition and health. Things are changing around the build of dancers, too. Ballerinas were [traditionally] very svelte, super athletes – but so thin. That is definitely changing as ballerinas whose physique challenges what was the norm are [now] making it to the top. Misty Copeland, who dances lead with the American Ballet Theatre, helped change that. She’s one of the first black ballerinas and she’s got a bust, which was unheard of years ago.”

Find the right physio

In her mid-30s, Eleanor suffered knee injuries which made her job difficult. A number of physios prescribed cortisone injections and a career change, but finding the right physio was the cure she actually needed. “Sean Deegan in Sports and Spinal, Clonmel, figured it out. My glutes had stopped firing. The ITB band that runs from your hip down to your knee was pulling on the knees and causing the pain.”

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

The clinic had a Pilates Reformer coach and a machine, so when Sean recommended Eleanor try it, she booked in and found “a whole new set of muscles. I thought I was strong but when I did the reformer, I realised my body was off balance completely.”

When the coach moved on, Eleanor was keen to keep doing classes but with none available, a random chat with Sean kickstarted her Pilates career when he said, “Would you not think of teaching it?”

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

Two weeks later, she was in Dublin doing her first Pilates training course. On qualification, Sean offered Eleanor the opportunity to work in the physiotherapy clinic and referred her clients.

“So my initial work was with clients with injuries – mostly back injuries, like you Amii,” she quips.

Eleanor loved how she saw it helping people, and with her client base growing for one-to-one sessions, just before COVID-19, she moved the reformer to her house to make it easier to schedule clients. That decision turned out to be her saving grace during lockdown.

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

“It saved me from going mad. I took on another three courses in Pilates during that time, doing up to level three training and anatomy, which is the highest you can do in Balanced Body.”

During this time, her lockdown project to open a studio was also hatched.

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

“I thought I was going to be dancing into my 60s and 70s and teaching kids. I never saw myself doing anything else but I had to listen to what my body was telling me. I was falling in love with what I was doing on the reformer and still, it came back to the same principle of what I was always good at, I was still teaching, still being fulfilled by teaching. But I just felt: ‘OK, I’m going to go a different path.’”

A start-up

During lockdown, Eleanor did some online ‘start your own business’ courses. She researched the best machines and visualised her studio.

“I’m a big believer in the law of attraction. I was visualising myself, while still in that little room I had in my house, teaching a group of people, a full class, and seeing the studio.

Eleanor Brannigan and her sister Susan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

“After COVID, I was looking for a studio space when a new client came in. I was telling her: ‘I’m only going to be here for another while as I’m opening a studio,’ and she said: ‘Oh, we have a studio space.’ That, for me, was the universe answering.” The following January, Flexelle Reformer Pilates opened.

Initially, Eleanor closed only one dance school as she didn’t know how busy Flexelle would be, but it took off from day one. Clients came through her core base, parents of students, the physio clinic, word of mouth and some social media campaigns.

Getting started with pilates reformer

So what is it, I ask, this machine that looks like it came straight off the set of Fifty Shades of Grey or a medieval torture chamber?

Eleanor Brannigan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

“I just call it Pilates on steroids. Can I say that?” she laughs and I know that this is not the first time she has been asked this question.

“With mat (floor) Pilates you’re using your own body but on the reformer machine, you are using the springs – each of which has a different resistance. It’s definitely more resistance training and becomes more challenging based on the setup of the springs.”

Eleanor says it never gets boring and that’s what will always challenge people. “Some people say, ‘Does it ever get any easier?’ Well, no, because the stronger you get, the more I’m going to push you – so you’re never going to plateau, you’re never going to get to a point where you go: ‘It’s easy.’”

Eleanor Brannigan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

Each workout is different although it starts the same, she explains: “You lie down and push in and out. That gives you that five minutes to come back into your own body, to breathe and focus. Then everything else in your mind goes out the window because you’ve got to spend the rest of the class focusing on your body, focusing on your breath and focusing on staying up.”

Baby body

“Core is very much the focus, building back up that strength into the pelvic floor, engaging it again, and then building up overall core strength,” Eleanor says of their pre- and post-natal classes.

“We also work very much on strengthening those glutes, too, to support the back. Some moms come back in as soon as they’re allowed. Everyone is different, but no matter what stage you are at, we guide you through your workout.”

Another random conversation saw Eleanor’s sister, Susan, join her in the business. Susan also has a background in fitness (not dancing, but swimming) and had been working as a hotel leisure centre manager.

“I was looking for a change, Eleanor was looking for someone, and here I am. We teach one class together a week and that’s our moms and bubs because we’re both here to help the moms with the babies. If a baby’s crying, I’ll teach the class with a baby in my arms. Our attitude is: get your work out, we’ve got you covered.”

Eleanor Brannigan at Flexelle Pilates Reformer Studio. \ Odhran Ducie

The number of men taking up the challenge is increasing, too, Eleanor says, smiling. “A lot of them are referrals from wives or girlfriends. They look at it on Instagram and think ‘that’s easy’. Then they come in and they’re shaking, getting the wobbles, breaking a sweat. People often think they are coming in for a stretch whereas we’re working your whole body, head to toe.”

For everyone

“My original plan for the space was that I wanted anyone who came in the door to feel welcome and to feel part of something, no matter their fitness level. Whether you walk, run or do nothing at all – whatever it is. There is no upper limit – the oldest client I had was 79. He came in from a physio and did great.”

The series

It is well-accepted that people who partake in sports and physical activity experience improved self-esteem, self-worth and confidence levels, as well as enhanced mental health. However, women and girls are underrepresented in sports and, according to Sport Ireland, teenage girls take part in sports and physical activity far less than the national average in Ireland. The organisation says: “Girls who are active in their teenage years are much more likely to establish a life-long relationship with sport and exercise in adulthood.” But women of all ages are failing to get in their recommended activity levels and the reasons for this are plentiful. Throughout this series, Irish Country Living will highlight some of the activities women are involved in, whether you are team motivated or a solo hawk. Get in touch with if you have a club or idea that might spark someone’s interest.

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