The Treehouse

Photography by Dan Austin

Up above Winter Haven’s Ballet Conservatory resides the Treehouse, a colorful and whimsical studio incorporating one of today’s most talked-about fitness practices — Pilates. Learn more about how Pilates found its way into instructor Mikki Lawlor’s life and how his classes impact his clients today. 

The art of Pilates is a relatively new practice in the world of physical fitness. It was developed in the early 1900s by Joseph Pilates who was a gymnast as a young man and a professional boxer. Pilates was German-born, and lived (and boxed) in England prior to the first World War. When war broke out, Pilates was interned like many other Germans living and working in England at the time. It was during this imprisonment that he found himself teaching fitness classes to his fellow men and thus developed what he called “Contrology,” the science of control.

Pilates was truly ahead of his time. His focus was more on not what you do, but why you do it. He realized the connection of controlled breathing and the alignment of the spine to overall wellness. Pilates knew that the modern world would need this type of strength training to better maintain their health.

In 1926, Pilates immigrated to New York City where he developed a strong following among the dance community. It was through dance that our local Pilates guru, Michael “Mikki” Lawlor, came to the practice.

Lawlor grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He spent his summers in Winter Haven where his grandparents lived. Dance has always been a part of his life in some form. Throughout his whole life, Mikki’s mother, Pirkko Lawlor, has performed and taught dance, and still teaches weekly classes today. She is a ballet soloist in her native Finland.

While directing a production of the Aaron Copeland ballet Rodeo, Pirkko was sorely lacking male dancers. So she convinced her son to perform in the production.

[Mikki] Lawlor was 15 years old. At that point, his artistic love was music. He played numerous brass instruments in addition to the piano and typically performed with his band during the ballet’s intermission. But from that performance of Rodeo forward, Lawlor continued to dance for fun.

Lawlor relocated to Florida in 1981. In 1983, Pirkko and Joe Lawlor opened The Ballet Conservatory, and [Mikki] Lawlor began teaching dance classes.

“When you come to Pilates, you take care of your own vessel. You can, in turn, help other people. It’s the ripple effect. If you do something kind, it comes back three times as much.”

When it came time for Lawlor to attend college, he began as a business major with a minor in music at the University of South Florida. He continued to dance for fun and was offered a full scholarship if he would become a dance major. He then transferred to Florida State University (FSU) with another full dance scholarship. While attending FSU, Lawlor was a member of the FSU Dance Repertory Theatre. He transferred schools three more times, finally landing at Florida Southern College where he graduated with a degree in music, theatre, and dance.

Professionally, Lawlor danced two seasons with the Tampa Ballet. He has performed at Busch Gardens, Boardwalk and Baseball, Sea World, and Cypress Gardens. Eventually he landed as a dancer at Walt Disney World and ended up working there for 15 years. Today you can find Lawlor teaching modern dance and ballet classes at the Ballet Conservatory.

Even though dance has earned him his living, Lawlor has never considered dancing to be truly work.

It was in 1991, while as a dancer at Walt Disney World and performing in Beauty and the Beast, that Lawlor was introduced to Pilates. He had been reading about Pilates for dancers and was introduced to a class by a fellow dancer. Lawlor than took his first Pilates class. He was surprised to discover that Pilates proved to be a lot harder than he thought it would be, even with the strength he developed as a professional dancer. So, he began regularly attending classes. 

Over the next 10 years, Lawlor practiced Pilates with several different instructors and experienced several different methods of Pilates. Finally he landed on the Stott method as his preferred style. The Stott method is what he now teaches his own students. It is the most progressive method with a connection to physical therapy.

Following one of his own favorite quotes, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best,” Lawlor moved on from simply taking Pilates’ classes to teaching them.

Lawlor transitioned from his life as a professional dancer in 2003. Using an inheritance he received from his Aunt Raili (who was also a professional dancer) he moved into his studio referred to as the “the Treehouse” and began instructing Pilates students full time. Upon entering the Treehouse, one of the first things you will notice is the room’s bright, energizing paint color that Lawlor refers to as “center-stage green.” The Treehouse is vibrant and full of art.

Lawlor is a bit of a work of art himself. He is typically dressed colorfully and whimsically; a person couldn’t help but be happy in his presence. He truly brings joy to his practice. Lawlor delivers all his classes with enthusiasm as though it were a theatrical performance, which leads his clients to believe that whatever the cost of a class, it’s worth it with an instructor like Lawlor. To some, Pilates may be viewed as a luxury practice. But if you regard your body as your most valuable asset, it is well worth the investment for your health.

“[That’s] what the meaning of life is,” says Lawlor, “helping other people. When you come to Pilates, you take care of your own vessel. You can, in turn, help other people. It’s the ripple effect. If you do something kind, it comes back three times as much.”

In addition to his Pilates’ practice, Lawlor enjoys bicycling around the beautiful Winter Haven area. He believes in a balance of the health triangle, focusing equally on the connection of spiritual/mental health, nutritional health, and physical health. And while he does not consider Pilates to be a quick weight-loss fix, he likes that the practice brings awareness to the health triangle. He also considers himself a flexitarian, which means he eats mostly a plant-based diet and everything else in moderation. He says that a plant-based diet is scientifically proven as the way to go and that it practices an “eat-to-live” rather than a “live-to-eat” mentality.

To Lawlor, life is all about gratitude. The more you are grateful, the more you can receive. He is grateful for his wife Jann (a doctor of physical therapy) whom he says is his greatest resource. She and his three sons, Sean, Joseph, and David, are the lights of his life and create happiness in everything he does.

The Treehouse

(at The Ballet Conservatory Dance Center)

505 Avenue I NW, Winter Haven, FL 33881

863.299.1055  |  bcdcdance.com