The Early Years
It’s hard for me to imagine…
how I could begin my life as a boy in Dogtown, Missouri and end up in New York City with Martha Graham and Joe and Clara Pilates as teachers.
I think there is a higher power that leads us along our path and that, little is left to random chance.
I feel that many of my students are drawn to my work by the same higher power that led me to my special teachers.
in New York City in 1944 and was able to secure a job in advertising at Saks Fifth Avenue. Shorty after, I attended a dance concert by the Martha Graham Company and I knew that this was where I needed to be. Ignorant of all protocol, I presented myself and persistently waited until I was granted an interview with Martha. She agreed to allow me to study. Looking back, I can see that I had natural physical gifts that one needs for the rigors of dance. Still my study had commenced late for a dancer. I did not have the luxury of years of basic dance classes that prepare the artist for performance. The Graham technique is very strenuous and I began to have problems with my knee. Exploratory surgery was recommended. However, this was very risky and could have ended my career. One of my fellow classmates suggested that I should take myself to Joe Pilates. This is how I began the study of Contrology.
I believe that I am the most fortunate person to be lengthened out and centered on the PILATES REFORMER by Joseph H. Pilates himself, almost 50 years ago, and I clearly recall how good it felt. I had danced on that knee, Novocain-injected, for so many performances that my whole body was “cockalooky” from protecting and compensating and it was difficult to find or feel my center. Joe, with his wise-blood instinct, his gift of body knowledge and his “magic machine” very soon helped me to rediscover that center, low in the pelvic area, “bolting” the pubic bone back to the tail bone. That Reformer is a brilliant piece of Pilates, enabling one to lie supine over a weak or injured part of the body and properly engage and exercise specific muscle groups against the tension of ingeniously placed springs and straps – unhampered by your own weight. It was a slow time at Pilates, so I fortunately was given a lot of time and attention, learning so many things from this brilliant, impatient, sometimes irascible tough old German who seemed ageless. The work was constantly evolving and (I’m so grateful) he used me often to try some piece he wanted to see on a body that was beginning to show the Pilates training.
I continued working with Martha Graham during this period of time. A student on scholarship, I tread carefully between these two brilliant visionaries (with giant egos) who were both proprietary about their young male students. But I’m telling a big TRUTH when I say I learned a lot – not only extraordinarily beautiful movement, but how to perform it correctly, from deeply within the body, with spirit and with brio, finding my way to an understanding of the philosophies of these two incomparable teachers.
New York & Beyond
In my early twenties, I went on with my career, working with Martha Graham, dancing on Broadway and in London with Mary Martin, choreographing “Top Banana” with Phil Silvers, choreographing the Ron Fletcher Dancers on NBC’s weekly ALL STAR REVUE, choreographing the LIDO in Paris 3 years and staging 13 editions of the ICE CAPADES. I also staged shows for Il Teatro Duomo in Milan, Italy, and made TV and concert appearances with Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Ethel Barrymore, Josephine Baker, Carol Channing, Sonja Henie and other great talents of the time. I always went back to Pilates when time and location allowed.
With scant formal education, I was given an honorary degree in 1951 from Utah State University so that I could spend a summer there as resident teacher/choreographer. I also worked with Alma Hawkins in her movement therapy program at UCLA and Santa Monica College on honorary degrees (1975-1977).
I am an Irish/American Indian gay Gemini- a top candidate for alcoholism, and mine had progressed to the point where I was crazy and impossible to work with when I was drinking, which was most of the time. I began to black out, disappear, smash up bars, and miss rehearsals and openings. My producers, after exhibiting lots of patience, summarily tossed me out of all my contracts – on my butt. I had hit bottom and zoom, all my goodies and fine favors were whisked away. I sat on my pity pot for a long time. The word was out- talented guy- bad boozer. Easter Sunday April 15, 1967 was my first AA meeting and from that day I haven’t had a drink for over 37 years. I regard that as a true spiritual awakening. I am grateful to AA and many people, especially those who kicked me out of my posh positions and on to my BOTTOM.
I did no work for a year, and spent time evaluating, taking inventory of myself, and deciding what I wanted to do and what I could do. My rehab therapy included almost daily sessions with Clara. Joe died later in that same year, and from long sessions and wonderful talks with Clara came a dazzling inspiration: Teach Pilates Work- Body Contrology! So, with Clara’s blessing, love and sound advice, “There is far to go with this work- this is just the tip of the iceberg- this work is in your blood and you are the man to create and develop it from this point on, Go and do- just always remember the A, B, C’s, ” I began to teach.
I continued to maintain my relationship with Clara Pilates through letters and visits to New York. She was not only a beautiful soul and a lovely and caring lady, but she was also the truest teacher/disseminator of Joe’s work ever! “Dis machine iss your partner” she said. “You don’t work on it or at it, you work with it.” She taught me to work more slowly so that I could feel each piece of the movement as it moved through my body “from the inside out” resulting in a rich experience of body, mind, spirit. Focused, and feeling more aware of the wonder of the BODY and the workings of it’s parts. Joe was a genius but it was Clara who was able to impart the subtlety and quality of the movement. Clara was generous and encouraged me to continue to teach and develop the method.
I introduced the work to Los Angeles on March 17, 1971 and thanks to Aida Grey, Howard Borris and Hal David, I opened a beautiful studio just above dear Aida Grey’s Salon de Beaute’, smack on the corner of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. As no one outside of Manhattan was familiar with or knowledgeable about the name Pilates, I called my studio The Ron Fletcher Studio for Body Contrology. Many people in “show biz” knew my name and “Body Contrology” gave it weight and mystique. I’ve always liked the term Body Contrology. Joe said “it means discipline: control of the body, mind, breath and spirit.” I thank him…
The West Coast
…this was a new thing for them to discover and try, and talk about. It was in the “right” location and “Ron Fletcher” had done some good work, and was a “real character.” Judith Krantz, Ali Macgraw, Candice Bergen, Dyan Cannon, Steven Speilberg, Striesand, Gabor… all came. They recognized it as “good stuff.” They liked the change in their bodies, they felt good, they told their friends, and they came and the place became an oasis for these people to gather and chat and work and behave like the real people they are. I became very close to several of these people and we remain friends today.
That first studio in Beverly Hills became a singular, warm, fine, friendly place to work and teach and learn for many years. I was strongly supported by Diane Severino and Michael Podwal, dancers from NewYork who had been led wondrously up those stairs, intially to “see what was going on.” Both stayed to study with me as teachers. They learned very fast and they understood what it was really about. They were gifted and they moved beautifully. They became tough, loving, inspirational teachers (still are!) and they helped me to keep that studio “zinging” with learning and laughter and they also stayed on and ran the Ron Fletcher Studio for many years after I began traveling the world presenting workshops.
The issue of a Certification Process for Training in the Ron Fletcher Work first arose in June of 1983 when Diane, Michael and I were asked to participate in a prestigious Los Angeles Dance clinic. A key speaker at the clinic was Dr. James Garrick, an eminent surgeon and head of the Sports Medicine Department and Dance Rehabilitation Division at St. Francis hospital in San Francisco.
Dr. Garrick was intrigued by our demonstration of the Pilates Work, and he sent his assistant, Patrice Whiteside, to our studio to study Body Contrology with emphasis on the therapeutic aspects of the work. Shortly after, a Pilates facility was opened at St. Francis Hospital under the direction of Patrice Whiteside, and Diane and Michael returned often in order to add to/update the curriculum. We were asked by the hospital officials for a certificate of sorts to add credibility and “weight” to the program and our first certification, given to Patrice Whiteside, stated simply:
Ron Fletcher Company
This certifies that Patrice Whiteside
has successfully completed the
Basic Course in BODY CONTROLOGY.
The success and popularity of the Beverly Hills Studio and the St. Francis Hospital facility brought in more and more people interested in teaching the work. They came to our studio for lengthy periods of time, learning the basic concepts of the work and serving as apprentice teachers before receiving certifications like the one described above.
The Evolution of the Ron Fletcher Work…
Joe had always exhorted us to “breathe… you got to OUT de air to IN de air!” However, there was not a clearly shaped breathing pattern for the various moves, and Graham’s response to “where and when do I breathe?” was “I don’t care as long as it doesn’t show.” This is the way dancers and athletes work, grabbing a breath when you can. Martha’s concept of contraction and release was closing the body and sinking down to the floor on a deep exhalation, and opening the body and filling your “space” on inhalation. Graham often said: “let the inhalation be the inspiration for the movement.” It was the coupling of these ideas that influenced the development of my own concept of Percussive Breathing.
I did lengthy research on THE BREATH when I began to write my book. I read and was astounded after the following excerpt: “Each of us is made up of seventy trillion cells and every cell is hungry for oxygen all the time.” I observed and experimented more and I found, like Joe said, we have to OUT the oxygen-depleted air so that we can IN more oxygen-rich air. So, I began adding structured breathing patterns to the movements… developing what I call PERCUSSIVE BREATHING, breath with rhythm and sound… exhaling more completely in order to inhale more fully, expanding the lungs, delivering more oxygen to those 70 trillion cells (from brain to the toenails). My beathing patterns support and bring vitality, exuberance, spirit and enthusiasm to the every piece of movement.
After the publication of my book, with its attendant publicity and television exposure, I was asked more and more to come out to various facilities around the country to conduct workshops. The original Pilates Work of Joe and Clara had all been done on various pieces of equipment of Joe’s design. However, many dance studios with no Pilates equipment, some at university level, asked me to teach “Ron Fletcher Classes” and I began to develop a full curriculum of exercises and movement- standing in place, seated on the floor and moving across the floor (also see TECHNIQUES section for detailed descriptions) that could be done without Pilates equipment.
I made adaptations to the classical pieces of Joe’s equipment work, variations on themes, so that this material could be presented on the floor effectively, and I sought to create pieces of movement rather than just a series of exercises. My aim was, and is, to have every piece of vertical body work that is on the floor- seated, standing or moving across the floor, relate to work on the equipment in some way- adding a breath pattern to each piece, stressing both the esthetic and therapeutic aspects of the work- I thought of Clara’s admonition, “This machine is your partner,” and over a long period of time developed (still am developing) a syllabus of Fletcher Floorwork®, which, to a great degree, can be transferred back to the various pieces of equipment- some including the Fletcher Towelwork®, all of it using the Percussive Breathing patterns. I consistently strive to teach the Pilates concept of working from the low pelvic area “bolting” the pubic bone back to the tailbone, “centering” the body, getting all of its parts into correct alignment, from the foot centers to the top of the back of the head. I used as inspiration for floor work, exercises such as the hundreds (the abdominals), the mermaid, the dolphin, coordination, the elephant and the teaser.
My background as a Graham dancer helped me to develop this material for a floor class that did not depart from the intention of Joe’s reformer material. The artistry of the Graham work also influenced my performance and interpretation of the work. I was greatly impressed with Martha’s original concept of contraction and release work. This expanded my awareness of the articulation of the spine emphasized by Joe throughout his program. Joe Pilates was adamant regarding his concept of how the body should be placed in an elongated position on the floor. I adapted my roll down series on the floor with the legs in the diamond position from Joe’s work on the ped-i-pul. Furthermore, my adaptations on the Spine Corrector gave us the increased abdominal strength and centering in the trunk muscles necessary to perform these new variations of Joe’s exercises correctly. I took this awareness with me into the deep contraction and high release of the Graham work, and over time these elements became woven together into a body of work that would challenge and fulfill the workshop students, and have value as a total movement experience.
Many instructors of the Pilates work protested vehemently: “Ron Fletcher does not teach classic Pilates, don’t study with him etcetera… I was irritated and bored with all of the litigation going on about who could teach Pilates, who could use the name, and who could not. The quality of work was diminishing as more and more unqualified instructors paid their way into the field in order to cash in on this hot new “old” exercise regimen. I pulled away from using the name Pilates, because first, I wanted to avoid being associated with all the unqualified people out there claiming to be Pilates Teachers. Secondly, I didn’t want my teachers, or me to be harassed and possibly sued by a zany person claiming to have the “rights” to everything connected with the name Pilates.
Consequently, I obtained a trademark for The Ron Fletcher Work® in 1993 and put together a movement regimen strongly based on my early work with Joe, using Pilates equipment, my high-level, detailed study with Clara, paying heed to her wisdom and depth of knowledge of how and why the work “worked.” I brought in much of what I had learned from Martha Graham, Yeichi Nimura, and Alma Hawkins. All of these people were brilliant visionaries. They all presented movement that was true, organic and therapeutically “right.” They simply packaged their products differently. This became apparent to me as I explored their work through the years. As I opened their packages the “work” inside went leaping together, mingling and marrying – and with thought and channeling from me – they now present an impressive Body of Work.
A great many people helped me to pull this Fletcher Work® together. They hung in with me and studied and experimented with me, and many of them have become proud Teachers of the Fletcher Work®. I need them – their questioning, devotion, eagerness to try new pieces or variations on themes, and their total support in helping me to keep the work ALIVE and MOVING. I love and respect every one of them and they are listed on this site- with more on the way. Clara said to me “it is in your blood, take it and go!” And that’s what we’re striving to do!!!