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     for first-generation teacher ron fletcher, the beat goes on
                    INTERVIEW BY
                    ELIZABETH LARKAM

86   j u l y / a u g u s t 2008 p i l a t e s s t y l e . c o m
                                                                  W       hen Ron Fletcher isn’t relaxing at his Stonewall, Texas,                                                                      Left: Ron at age
                                                                                                                                                                                                        four. Bottom: with
                                                                          ranch, the curriculum director of the prestigious Ron                                                                         actress Jane
                                                                  Fletcher Program of Study is traveling the globe to share a                                                                           Kean, mid-1960s

                                                                  wealth of knowledge in his sought-after methods of Towelwork,
                                                                  Floorwork, Percussive Breath and movement philosophies.
                                                                     At a youthful 87, Fletcher continues to play a principal role in
                                                                  the evolution and teaching of the method, and many Pilates
                                                                  teachers—including me—can trace their involvement in the
                                                                  industry to this man. An original student of Joe and Clara Pilates,
                                                                  Ron was the first to bring the discipline to Los Angeles. Over the
                                                                  years he’s shared his technique in clinical settings, specifically at
                                                                  the Dancemedicine Division of the Center for Sports Medicine
                                                                  at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco and move-
                                                                  ment-therapy programs at UCAL and at Santa Monica College.
                                                                     Today he sits tall, his strong shoulders draped with one of the
                                                                  famous braided red towels he uses in his work. As he speaks,
                                                                  deliberately and dramatically, his arms and torso move with the
                                                                  catlike grace that marked his stage and television dance career,
                                                                  in which he performed with the likes of Marlene Dietrich,
                                                                  Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead and Carol Channing. It isn’t
                                                                  easy to capture Fletcher’s seven decades of history in one
                                                                  sitting. But his dance-step demos, candid admissions and
                                                                  tremendously entertaining demeanor made for one of the most
                                                                  fascinating conversations of my own career.

                                                                  When did you know that dance and movement were callings for you?
                                                                  I was just born with a sense of rhythm. I think it’s from my people, the American

                                                                  Indians. My maternal grandmother was a healer and had a way with how she stood and
                                                                  held her hands. I had always danced as a child, what I called jig dance. My rhythm was
                                                                  always impeccable. We were poor and lived in Dogtown, on the Arkansas-Missouri
                                                                  border. It was a tacky town, and I wanted to get away. So in 1940, at age 19, with a suit-
                                                                  case, trench coat, umbrella and $500, I went to New York. I thought I was hot stuff.
                                                                  There I saw my first real dance concert—Martha Graham. When she appeared, my
                                                                  whole body felt something. That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do.

                                                                  So how did you go from jig dancer to being a member of her company?
                                                                  I don’t know if it was stupidity or determination, but I just went to her studio and asked
                                                                  if I could study with her. She worked with me for an hour and a half and made me do
                                                                  a plié, turnout and port de bras and then said, “I can make a dancer out of you.” I went
                                                                  on to work with her group and danced on Broadway and in London and was the
                                                                  choreographer for many TV shows, the Lido in Paris and the Ice Capades for 12 years.

                                                                                                                                                      p i l a t e s s t y l e . c o m j u l y / a u g u s t 2008   87
     Top left: at the Beverly        Why didn’t you continue dancing for                     lose interest and Clara would take over. Joe was a
        Hills studio with his        Martha Graham?                                          brilliant visionary, but Clara was right in step with
     staff—Diane Severino,           She got mad at me. I got a good part in a show          him. She would do the precision of it. But I never
         Carol Monaco and
                                     with Mary Martin and wanted to be listed in the         saw her on the equipment.
          Michael Podwal—
                in the 1970s.        program: “Ron Fletcher appears courtesy of the
         Top right: teaching         MG company.” That didn’t suit Martha. She said,         What was it like working with her?
               a group class,        “You’re just going off whoring.” She wanted me          To give you an idea, in 1966 I lost my contract
                   mid-1980s         to be a concert dancer and live on spaghetti and        with the Ice Capades for being drunk and missing
                                     beans. But it was my first chance to make money,        an opening night. They tossed me out.
                                     so I took it. It earned my reputation as a dancer.      Everything was gone—secretary, driver, gofer. I
                                     She didn’t speak to me for a year,                      hated myself for being a drunk. I think that my
                                                                                             path to getting sober was due to Clara and
                                     How did you end up studying with Joe?                   Alcoholics Anonymous. One day when I was
                                     I injured my knee. My fellow classmate, ballerina       working at the studio, moving across the floor.
                                     Allegra Kent, said, “Did you ever hear of that little   Clara and I were alone together and I said, “I just
                                     man called “Pie-lots”? I was willing to try anything,   want to move. I want to move off the floor.” And
                                     so I went to this terrible, creaky little studio on     I’ll never forget, she was standing there so quiet-
                                     Eighth Avenue. It was spooky-looking, and it kind       ly and said, “Of course you do.” I also remember
                                     of smelled. Clara was standing there in her nurse’s     her saying, “You should teach this work. Always
                                     outfit, and I thought I was not in the right place.     remember your ABCs.” I went to my first AA
                                     And they were not at all charming. The Reformers        meeting after that on Easter Sunday in April
                                     had these big clubfeet. When I saw the Tower, I         1967. I haven’t had a drink since.
                                     told my friends that it looked like a guillotine.
                                                                                             What happened next?
                                     What was it like working with him?                      I decided to make a fresh start in Los Angeles
                                     The first time I went, I talked to him about my         and teach Pilates. I was introduced to Aida Grey,
                                     knee, and he said “Yes, yes, yes” but never looked      the beauty queen of Beverly Hills, who had her
                                     at my knee. He put his finger on the edge of my         Salon de Beauté on the corner of Rodeo and
                                     tailbone and told me to roll back on the Reformer       Wilshire. I brought material about Joe, and we
                                     one bone at a time. I’ll never forget that German       just clicked. She had never heard of Pilates—no
                                     accent: “Don’t shtep on my finger.”                     one out there had. She said, “Well, when do you
                                                                                             want to begin this? I have a storeroom upstairs
                                     What was it like to be in the studio with               filled with cosmetics. I can clean it out, and you
                                     Joe and Clara at the same time?                         can have that space.” It was that simple.
                                     It was not too often that I was taught by both of
                                     them at the same time. He was stern. And                How did you make a go of it?
                                     Clara—once you came to know her—was a soft,             I had enough money to operate and pay rent for
                                     sweet, spiritual woman. Sometimes Joe would             at least a year without worrying about debt. I

88        j u l y / a u g u s t 2008 p i l a t e s s t y l e . c o m
called it the Ron Fletcher Studio for Body              than with theater people. [The civilians] just didn’t              From left: with actress
Contrology: Pilates Method. I had the equipment         understand alignment. I would line them all up                     Katharine Ross, 1980s;
shipped and can remember sitting there the first        against a mirror and adjust them. Once I’d get a                   performing the Star on
                                                                                                                           the Reformer in his L.A.
day in 1972 thinking, Is anyone going to show           hip in place, a shoulder would get out of place. It
                                                                                                                           studio; portrait of Ron
up? No one knew about it. The first people who          was like working with rag dolls. We had towels in                  by Barbara Wolfson for
came were what I called the ladies who lunch:           the studio for showering and wiping down equip-                    his book, Every Body Is
Betsy Bloomingdale and Nancy Reagan. They all           ment, so one day I grabbed one and twisted and                     Beautiful, 1978
looked alike in their little Chanel suits. I had bou-   twisted it. I gave it to a student and asked him to
tique dressing rooms where they would change            hold it in both hands, straight overhead. It turned
into black leotards. They thought, Oh, there’s a        out to be the perfect indicator to get students to
new oasis in the middle of Beverly Hills. That          see that they weren’t straight—it would dip this
suited them.                                            way and that way. Bottom line: It became a tool to
                                                        get the shoulders and back in line with the ears,
What was it like working with                           the sternum lifted and the arms even. I also found
this clientele?                                         that if a student pulled the towel outward, it
It was terrific! They were fun to teach and to          would engage a whole group of muscles under the
be with, and they were intelligent enough               arms and triceps. Used properly, it can open up
to understand the concepts of the work. I gave          the back, scapula, shoulder girdle and rib cage.
mat, equipment and floorwork classes and taught
movement across the floor. The word spread.             How did it evolve into this red braid?
Brooke Hayward, a Hollywood pioneer, came,              I didn’t want to twist and twist towels. And red is
loved the work and brought Candice Bergen;              my favorite color. The red line is useful for deter-
Candice brought Ali MacGraw; Ali brought                mining alignment. Black, brown, gray or white
Barbra Streisand—and soon magic began                   would have blended into the background and been
to happen. At one point I had a waiting list of         more difficult to cue posture and alignment in a
200 people.                                             group class. I looked at a few terry samples from
                                                        Egypt before deciding on just the right red. One
Did you enjoy the L.A. lifestyle?                       of my students designed it, and it’s copyrighted.
Los Angeles was a marvelous place to introduce
Body Contrology and to open a studio. It was also       You brought the Pedipole, the Tower and
a magical time to be there. There was still studio      the Barrel into mainstream use. Did you
glamour, and the actors were true celebrities. My       and Clara develop the Barrel together?
studio became both a Hollywood hub and                  It was Joe’s invention, but with Clara’s blessings I
an oasis away from the industry for performers,         did innovations on it. Ken Endelman [CEO of
writers, producers, directors, et al.                   Balanced Body] and I worked on it together. I
                                                        noticed the arch didn’t match the body’s arch, so
What inspired your Towelwork?                           I rethought the design to include Clara’s belief
At my L.A. studio I worked more with “civilians”        that in order to stretch the spine over the Barrel,

                                                                                     p i l a t e s s t y l e . c o m j u l y / a u g u s t 2008   89
      From left: bronze           the curve must come from the rib cage up. We           and Fletcher Pilates licensing courses.
 sculpture “Inspiration,”         took the handles away too. We called it Clara’s
     by Maggie Parker,            Spine Corrector, and it’s now used in the dance        In your opinion, what do you find
    portraying Ron as a
  young dancer (stand-
                                  program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.        instructors need to know most?
   ing) and as a master                                                                  The ABCs! When I have a workshop, I show people
       teacher (seated);          How did your Percussive Breath                         how to set up on the Reformer. Catchphrases like
     in fully contracted          technique originate?                                   neutral spine, pelvic floor—I never heard those
  forward stretch, 1977           People talk about the Pilates breath—I don’t           words from Joe or Clara. They would say “pull in”
                                  even know what that is! Joe never had a breath         or “down.” It’s nice to learn the words, but students
                                  pattern that matched a movement pattern. I saw         don’t know what to do with them.
                                  a lot of dancers just killing themselves. After
                                  dancing they’d go backstage and collapse. And as       What do you think about the rising
                                  a dancer myself, I always wondered when to take        popularity of Pilates?
                                  a breath. Joe always used to say “breeze”              I have mixed feelings. We have many more ded-
                                  [breathe], and I was like, “How? When?” He said        icated students from around the world, and we
                                  something that made a big impression: “You got         have many good teachers. Yet we need more
                                  to ‘out’ de air so you can ‘in’ de air.” In other      true teachers instead of trainers or instructors.
                                  words, the exhalation matters.                         Many are becoming “teachers” before their
                                                                                         time—before they complete their student
                                  How did you develop that knowledge into                process. You need more than four workshops
                                  a technique?                                           and a piece of paper to teach Body Contrology.
                                  I realized that breath vitalizes movement with         You need to study it.
                                  sound and rhythm. Your lungs just hang there
                                  like two passive sacks or two deflated balloons. If    How do you unwind these days?
                                  you open the rib cage by breathing into the inter-     I enjoy reading. I didn’t used to, but I learned in
                                  costals, the lungs open, open, open—just like          AA to just be and not do. I live on 580 acres near
                                  blowing up balloons. Percussive breathing has a        the LBJ Ranch. It’s a great place to just be quiet
                                  sound and a rhythm that activates the muscles of       and be there in wonderful moments. I’ve been
                                  inspiration and expiration.                            with my partner, John—now that’s a relationship
                                                                                         that’s gone through every type of thing—for 40
                                  Can you tell us a little about the Ron                 years. We get along well, so that’s pleasant. I have
                                  Fletcher Program of Study?                             a little Japanese chin dog. I don’t drink or use
                                  It’s grown out of a program I developed back in        drugs or smoke. I often refresh myself by just
                                  the early ’80s for serious practitioners. It was       being still. I think I can sit still for longer than
                                  formalized in 2003 and has been further devel-         anyone else.
                                  oped and expanded over the past year. Students
                                  in the program are required to experience              Fitness editor Elizabeth Larkam studied with Ron
                                  movement before learning to teach it. We have          Fletcher in 1985 at the Dancemedicine Division
                                  a stellar group of faculty and facilitators all over   of the Center for Sports Medicine at Saint
                                  the world teaching our comprehensive program           Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.

90   j u l y / a u g u s t 2008 p i l a t e s s t y l e . c o m

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