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Five Questions: Fitness Is A Feeling

By Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Sarah Harding Traverso moved her individualized Pilates classes outside during the pandemic. A trained gymnast, she also spent six years performing with Cirque du Soleil.

A résumé rundown is usually a dry way to get to know someone. But when Disney, Cirque du Soleil and a two-time Ms. Fitness USA title pop up on one, the read is anything but boring.

Pilates instructor Sarah Harding Traverso began her tumbling days at age 6 in Oahu, growing up on the island — and the gymnastics mat. A scholarship took her to Stanford, where she competed as an NCAA All-American gymnast. After graduation and a stint at Tokyo DisneySea as an aerial Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Cirque came calling. “The timing was right — I could run away with the circus,” says Traverso, who spent six years with artists from around the world performing KÀ at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Today, she runs Sarah Harding Fitness Inc. Traverso, a mother of four young children who is based in Saratoga, likes to customize 1:1 Pilates experiences with clients who may have past injuries or be adapting to new postpartum bodies. “Healing is so much a part of embracing what we can do within some new restrictions and new limitations,” she says.

1From a fitness perspective, you’ve risen to elite levels. What has driven your various athletic pursuits?

As a young child, I fell in love with the joyful feeling gymnastics and dance gave me. Early on, I found that sweet spot where the work could feel satisfying. Human movement could make me feel strong, graceful, confident and in touch with a soulful power. Gymnastics became an expressive outlet for me to share emotion and connections with others. It seemed like a natural fit to later pursue a career in acrobatics with Cirque du Soleil.

“Parenthood is the toughest endurance sport I’ve ever played. Parents need the physical support and extra tools to learn how to take better care of their own bodies.”

2What was it like behind the scenes of KÀ?

You could easily hear seven different languages backstage at KÀ. You could walk into the training room and see acrobats bouncing on a trampoline, practicing wushu or Chinese martial arts, or doing traditional fitness training on a Pilates reformer. What you may not expect are the playful ways the acrobats train: volleying a soccer ball or hacky sack or listening to music while learning new hip-hop skills. The best part about being backstage is witnessing and experiencing the camaraderie that abounds among the cast and crew. Whether you’re onstage or off, there is a true sense of belonging and family.

3Your athletic journey led to Pilates, which you’ve taught for 15 years. What do you most hope your clients achieve through working with you?

When I was hired by Cirque in 2003, I was required to practice Pilates backstage with a private instructor three times a week due to a prior stress fracture in my lower back. Truthfully, I was never a fan of mat Pilates until I trained on a reformer. There was no pain! Yet it was still quite challenging.

Fitness is a feeling. As a Pilates instructor, my goal is to build better body awareness through Pilates, while I express and model empathy. What’s so great is clients often tell me when they feel better, they have more energy, patience and kindness for others.

4Your career has adapted alongside motherhood. How have you centered family in how you approach personal fitness, both for yourself and your clients?

Parenthood is the toughest endurance sport I’ve ever played. Parents need the physical support and extra tools to learn how to take better care of their own bodies while they tend to their little ones. Rather than carving out a traditional workout routine away from our kids, let’s give the spotlight to the children and let the kids dictate our fitness choreography. In other words, if the baby wants to breastfeed or suckle while mom’s carrying him or her in a baby carrier, let’s brainstorm gentle and restorative exercises mom can do while she’s feeding her baby. Or, if the child wants Daddy to read her a book or push her on a swing at the park, we can explore stretches or movements Dad can do while he’s either reading or playing with his child. This allows the parents to soothe their children while they get to nurture their own physical health and emotional well-being.

5This article will come out during the Olympic Games in Tokyo — a place you also know well from performing with Tokyo DisneySea. What is your take on the world of gymnastics today versus when you were competing and choreographing?

There are some key differences. First, as you know, there has been a major purge of our leadership, coaches and team doctors in the sport of women’s gymnastics. It’s no longer about little girls being pushed in unhealthy ways; it’s about strong women making personal choices for their athletic careers. Second, the team is one of the most diverse we’ve ever had, which is exciting for our sport and our nation. Also, the level of difficulty performed in gymnastics today versus 20 years ago is through the roof! Simone Biles has redefined what is humanly possible in the world of women’s gymnastics.

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