Photos: Ashley Habeck

Pilates Studio Empowers DC Residents For 21 Years

For 21 years, Excel Pilates DC has been a cornerstone business in DC’s Brookland neighborhood. 

What was just an empty space in 1998 transformed into a full blown Pilates studio when Lesa McLaughlin and former business partner Kerry De Vivo, talked the owner of the space into renting it to them. The two women built out the entire studio themselves, painting the walls and floors, and filling the space with reformers, wall units, chairs, barrels and more. McLaughlin calls the process “a labor of love.”

The term “Pilates” comes from Joseph Pilates, the founder of robust exercises centered around coordination, balance, strength and flexibility. 

“Empower Your Body, Empower Your Mind,” is the Excel Pilates DC motto. With a strong commitment to following the original teachings of Joseph Pilates, McLaughlin says that what makes her studio unique is that its teachings are “authentic.”

Lesa McLaughlin

McLaughlin grew up as a multi-sport athlete and pursued a dance degree at George Mason University. She went on to dance professionally, but was injured in a car accident toward the later part of her career, inspiring her to go to New York to practice and study Pilates. She then became certified in The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning in 1995, under the instruction of Joseph Pilates’ own student, Romana Kryzanowska.

Pilates was a natural transition for McLaughlin, and helped her find her way back to dance in a pain-free way. 

That is the intriguing part about the exercise method to many people. Regardless of fitness experience, McLaughlin said Pilates is for everyone.

“Pilates isn’t physical therapy, it’s exercise. It can be taught in a way that it’s for everybody,” McLaughlin says. “You don’t have to be an elite athlete or dancer to experience the work in a meaningful way.”

Having a meaningful experience with Pilates is one requirement candidates must have to go through McLaughlin’s teacher training program, along with several others. All of her teachings are classical, rooting from the original teachings of Joseph Pilates, which is one reason why Jaqueline Emanuel, an Excel Pilates DC instructor, fell in love with the studio. 

Emanuel joined the studio as a student in 2000, and knew she had the passion necessary to eventually become an instructor.

“What I like most about Pilates, and why I wanted to be a teacher, is because I believe in it so much. Anybody can do it,” Emanuel says. “It’s complete coordination of mind, body, spirit and I find that to be a unique quality in the movement.”

As the Pilates movement has grown over the years, so has Excel Pilates. In 2002, a second location opened in Annapolis Maryland, which is now owned and operated by De Vivo. Just five years ago, Alexandra Adams, a former student of Excel Pilates DC, opened another location in McLean, Virginia. These are the “sister” studios to the DC location.

Over the past 21 years of owning her own business, seeing the community that the studio has created is extremely satisfying to McLaughlin. Clients who frequented the studio when it first opened still travel today from other areas in DC to take classes, and there is something to be said for that.

“To know people are dedicated not only to the work, but to our studio, and to see people experience the work and do things they wouldn’t be able to do, that’s rewarding for me,” McLaughlin says. “That’s why I do it.”

To learn more about Excel Pilates DC and class offerings, visit

Excel Pilates DC: 3407 8th St. NE, DC; 202-269-3020;