Helen Phelan is a New York City-based Pilates instructor at Project by Equinox, where she teaches Pilates Rebels, fitness advisor to the women’s health app Moody Month. The former professional dancer discovered her love for healing and teaching after an injury while working on cruise line. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with her pit bull mix, Hugo. They are both learning French, just in case they make the move to Paris someday.
Did you grow up with any pets?
Oh my God, did we. My mom is always the sucker that when someone is like, “This kitten needs a home,” my mom is like, “Oh, we’ll take her.” So, I grew up with so many animals that extended members of my family were always like, “Your house is insane.” I think at one point I had seven guinea pigs. I had five cats and three dogs.
“[W]ithin eight days of having Hugo, I was already calling him my son.”
That’s a child’s dream.
My mom never said no to me any time I asked for an animal. She was always, like, crying already.
So were your dogs rescues?
Always, always rescues. I grew up with a lot of labs. We always had huge dogs growing up. My mom is now the placement coordinator at Northeast Boston Terrier Rescue.
How did Hugo come into your life?
Because I grew up with never less than 10 animals at a time, it was so weird for me in college and the first few years in New York to not have an animal. I always had roommates and it was always never the right time. So, it did take some convincing because my partner had never had a dog before. He wasn’t sure what the commitment level was going to be.
After we’d been together two and a half years, we got Hugo together. I didn’t have my heart set on any particular dog. I was just like, “Let’s go to this adoption event, and he’ll pick us.” We went to North Shore Animal League. And my partner did have his heart set on getting a puppy because he had never had that experience before. But were out of puppies! We waited outside three hours. It was like going to a fancy club.
By the time we got in, all the puppies were already adopted, so they told us about a Muddy Paws Rescue event the next day in the city, so I was so determined to come home with a dog that day. And Huge was this little black lab pit bull mix, and I was like, that looks like my dog!
Where did Hugo’s name come from?
I’m about to geek out so badly. My partner’s French. So, I knew I wanted it to be a cute little French name. But I also was such a huge musical theater nerd. And Les Mis, I used to watch, not exaggerating, every day growing up, this three-hour musical. It drove my parents crazy.
And Victor Hugo wrote Les Mis, and my aunt who lives in France, lives on Rue Victor-Hugo.
What an intellectual name for a dog.
That’s like my family’s thing. My mom’s a history teacher, so my favorite cat growing up was named General Marquis de Lafayette.
That’s incredible. I love big names for small pets. Are you a Francophile then?
100 percent! I’m trying to convince my partner to move to Paris. He refuses.
I think that would be great. The last time I was in Paris, I was so impressed with all the dogs walking off leash in the city streets.
I think they’re just more used to being in public. Like, restaurants let them in and stuff. Also French people have this expectation that their dog is going to be well behaved, so I think they feel that energy.
Does Hugo understand French?
We’re trying. We have a trainer, Dakarrie Garcia, which is how we trained Hugo. Lately, we’ve been doing the same hand gestures with French words, if he figures it out. Sometimes it works. I think we would have to commit to it more, but it’s more like, I will speak little phrases to him in French, rather than commands.
Tell us how your schedule as a Pilates instructor works with Hugo. You teach super early morning classes. When do you see Hugo?
It’s perfect because my partner works at Squarespace, and he doesn’t have to be at the office until 10am, 10:30am, and he’s able to work from home any time. But also, early in the morning and after work hours, that’s the bulk of when people want to work out. So, my partner does the early morning walk, I do the afternoon, lunchtime walk. And then he does the evening walk. Hugo always gets three walks. He’s very spoiled. My boyfriend is very into CrossFit. He always go to the gym with Hugo in the morning. He goes to CrossFit Outbreak in South Williamsburg. They have a little dog circle of people doing the morning class. They all bring their pups.
Tell us about the classes that you’re currently teaching.
I’m in a transitional phase because I left the studio that I’ve worked for a long time last summer. I have about 15 private clients right now. But group classes-wise, I teach Pilates Rebels classes at Project by Equinox. This summer, I’m also teaching at Session. I’m a fitness advisor to a new women’s health app called Moody Month.
How did you become a Pilates instructor?
I started dancing when I was three, and Pilates was always part of the cross training, part of the conditioning aspect of technique training. But it never really resonated with me until college. And as part of the dance major at Elon University, where I went, there’s a heavy focus on somatic theory. So I took Somatic Theory I and II, and then I TA’d it for the other classes, and then I also did independent study with the director of the dance department.
So that’s how I got my first Pilates certification—in college, which is nice. I wasn’t super passionate about teaching. I really was trying to soak up, “How can I use this to make me a better dancer?” But then I got injured a year after school. I was working with Celebrity Cruises, and I stress fractured my left foot in three places. I wasn’t able to do any weight-bearings until I was in the recovery process. So Pilates, barre, and the pool were the only things I could do. I became so much stronger than I was before my injury, which was wild to me—because I thought I was going to be so behind!
I just really fell in love with it, but then I went to Israel to dance for three months, and I totally didn’t touch any Pilates at all, except for my own personal workout. But by the time I left that dance project in Israel, I was at a crossroads where I was feeling really disappointed with the dance world, and more of the negative aspects of it. And I was looking for something a little bit less triggering. Because I was also dealing with an eating disorder for a very long time.
I dove right back into teaching, and I still thought it was going to be my day job. But I fell hard in love with it, and I did a few more dance projects with another small dance company for a little bit. But then I got to the point where I was like, staring at the clock in rehearsals, and thinking about what client I could’ve seen at that time. I was like, okay, there’s something obviously out of balance here. I’m a teacher now. I don’t need to perform to feel fulfilled.
How did you come up with Pilates Rebels? Which, by the way, I find to be a very difficult class!
I’ve always loved to really push my limits. I think when you dance for so long, you get kind of addicted to the process of being able to see yourself really improve, see yourself do exciting things. A lot of traditional Pilates is very restorative, very rehabilitative, which was totally necessary for me at one point. But the part where I was really feeling excited about it, and feeling it was the most fun, was pushing people, making it more challenging, making it more reps, higher weights. Adding cardio. Because when I’m sweating, I feel so into my body, so connected. It was so easy for me to check out when too slow, and I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it.
I’m drawn to that athletic style because I’m an athlete. I got into arguments on the playground with people who said, “Dance isn’t a sport.” It’s definitely an art primarily, but dancers are the strongest people in the world.
Oh, for sure. I often think about how Misty Copeland is the most athletic person I’ve ever seen.
I’ve obsessed with her. She’s gorgeous. Just the fact that she has such hyper extended legs, and those arches are able to support how strong she is as well.
New York is such a tough place to be a fitness instructor. It’s so competitive and the standards are high. What’s the hardest thing about being a fitness entrepreneur?
I think the biggest, most obvious challenge, is physical burnout, which is part of the reason I actually went out on my own in the first place. Teaching at a studio, I felt like I was just, I was giving so much of my body, and I was someone else’s employee. it’s like if I’m going to be basically abusing myself, I better be the one in charge. But then I’ve learned that also, you have to take care of yourself. You have to treat yourself as the priority, because you can’t give to others if you’re not taken care of first. Never pour from an empty cup and all that.
How do you take care of yourself?
The biggest one for me is just making sure that I go to acupuncture, I go to physical therapy. I get massages. Making sure my body is physically capable. As well as meditation. I’m able to set emotional boundaries, where I could be totally present with my clients, but I don’t let myself get personally affected by—I’m sort of like a little therapist in a private session. People love to talk. And I love that, but it’s something that I had to learn, to be able to move on with the rest of my day even after that person leaves the room.
And time management. That’s also probably huge. I can be on my computer, answering emails and planning events until 3am. But I have to set an alarm to pronounce the day is over.
What are some of your favorite New York workouts that aren’t your own?
I’m actually pretty bad about taking other people’s classes, because trainers are pretty bad about that. I have been making more of a concerted effort lately. I love Good Move, by my friend Jules Bakshi. She is opening a dance studio in Williamsburg. She teaches a really fun dance cardio-slash-Pilates workout, which is really fun for me. Because a lot of dance workouts can have that same competitive feeling that I got from the actual dance world, and I totally am not going to waste my time on getting the same thing that dance was giving me, if that makes sense.
What are your favorite workout apparel brands?
Well, I’m a little bit biased, because I used to work at a Lululemon. It was one of my first jobs in the city. The majority of my clothes are Lululemon. I love RYU. I love that there’s no creepy branding on it. I love a good, simple androgynous type of look in my non-workout clothes, too. Some of Bandier is too flashy for me, but the We Over Me leggings are super soft.
Oh, I have those leggings too! I love them. Where do you like to shop for Hugo?
A client of mine gave Hugo a beautiful collar from Berlin! The brand is Prachtpfoten.
How does Hugo stay healthy? What do you feed Hugo?
So, my mom literally makes her own dog food. But we just feed Wellness kibble. My partner is pretty strict about that. Sometimes I’ll try to sneak Hugo more treats or some of my dinner, and he’s like, “No, that’s not dog food.”
His favorite treat is a Kong with a little bit of kibble, some peanut butter, and some banana in it. And we freeze that, and then he will nurse that for a while.
How you identify with Hugo? Do you think of him as your son?
I guess I think he’s my child. I definitely think he was instantly part of the family. I went to a shelter to drop off donations, and I saw this beautiful white pit bull who had been a pet for years, and then the person got a new job in a new state, and I guess couldn’t take her with him.
That’s so sad.
I can’t understand that, because honestly within eight days of having Hugo, I was already calling him my son. But I can’t imagine just going to another state and being like, I’m not bringing my member of the family with me. It makes me so angry.
I would not take the job, I think.
Yeah, 100 percent.
Photography by Tayler Smith