Finding Your Center: Pilates-Inspired Moves for Dancers

Finding Your Center: Pilates-Inspired Moves for Dancers

Discovering the Power of Pilates

I can still vividly remember the day I first stepped onto Joseph Pilates’ revolutionary Reformer machine, nearly fifty years ago. As a young dancer struggling with a nagging knee injury, I had heard whispers about this mysterious German maestro and his unconventional approach to movement. Little did I know that this fateful encounter would forever change the trajectory of my career – and my life.

You see, I had found my way to New York City with dreams of studying under the legendary Martha Graham. While her intense, physically demanding technique whipped me into shape, it also took a significant toll on my body. That’s when a fellow dancer suggested I pay a visit to this Joe Pilates character, whose revolutionary “Contrology” method was rumored to have healing powers.

Walking into Pilates’ cozy studio, I was immediately struck by the man himself – a wizened, impatient taskmaster with a gift for body knowledge that bordered on the otherworldly. As he guided me through those first tentative exercises, lying supine on his ingeniously designed Reformer, I could feel the tight, guarded tension in my knee begin to melt away. It was as if this machine, with its precisely calibrated springs and straps, was somehow reading the language of my body and responding in kind.

The Reformer is a brilliant piece of Pilates equipment, 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.

I was captivated. Here was a way of moving that seemed to intuitively understand the needs of the dancer’s instrument, strengthening and lengthening in all the right places. As Pilates himself would say, it was about discipline, control of the body, mind, breath, and spirit. And for a young artist like myself, grappling with the demands of the Graham technique, it was nothing short of revelatory.

Forging a Unique Pathway

Of course, my journey with Pilates didn’t end there. In the years that followed, I would go on to forge a deeply personal relationship with both Joe and his wife, Clara – two visionaries whose contrasting teaching styles and larger-than-life personalities would leave an indelible mark on my development as a mover and a teacher.

While Joe’s no-nonsense German pragmatism pushed me to the limits of my physical capabilities, Clara’s gentle, nurturing approach helped me to truly inhabit the subtleties of the work. She would often remind me that the Reformer was my “partner” – not something to be “worked on” or “worked at,” but rather a collaborative tool to be moved with, in a rich, embodied dialogue.

Clara Pilates 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, and spirit.

It was through these contrasting perspectives that I began to develop my own unique approach to Pilates-inspired movement – one that combined the athletic rigor of the Graham technique with the anatomical precision and breath-work of Contrology. I called it “Body Contrology,” and it would go on to become the foundation of my life’s work.

Bringing Pilates to the Masses

As my reputation as a Pilates teacher grew, I found myself in high demand, not just among the dance community, but the Hollywood elite as well. Stars like Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, and Dyan Cannon flocked to my Beverly Hills studio, eager to discover the transformative powers of this “new” exercise regimen.

Many people in show biz knew my name, and Body Contrology gave it weight and mystique. They recognized it as good stuff – they liked the change in their bodies, they felt good, they told their friends, and they came. The place became an oasis for these people to gather and chat and work and behave like the real people they are.

But as the Pilates craze swept the nation, I grew increasingly frustrated with the wave of unqualified instructors who were cashing in on the trend, diluting the integrity of the practice. That’s when I decided to distance myself from the Pilates name altogether, opting instead to trademark my own unique approach as “The Ron Fletcher Work.”

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.

Under this new banner, I set out to refine and expand my movement system, drawing inspiration not just from Pilates, but from the visionary work of Martha Graham, Yeichi Nimura, and Alma Hawkins as well. The result was a dynamic, multi-dimensional practice that challenged dancers and non-dancers alike to explore the full expressive potential of their bodies.

Breathing Life into Movement

One of the key innovations I brought to the Pilates canon was my concept of “Percussive Breathing” – a structured, rhythmic approach to breath that imbues each movement with a sense of vitality and spirit. You see, while Pilates himself was adamant about the importance of proper breathing, his instructions were somewhat vague, leaving many students struggling to integrate this crucial element.

I did lengthy research on THE BREATH when I began to write my book. I read and was astounded by the fact that 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 that, like Joe said, we have to “OUT the oxygen-depleted air” so that we can “IN more oxygen-rich air.”

Drawing on my background as a Graham dancer, I began experimenting with different breathing patterns, exploring how they could enhance the articulation of the spine and the power of each contraction and release. The result was a system of “Percussive Breathing” – breath with rhythm and sound, exhaling more completely in order to inhale more fully, delivering more oxygen to those 70 trillion cells from brain to toenail.

My breathing patterns support and bring vitality, exuberance, spirit, and enthusiasm to every piece of movement.

As I continued to develop my Fletcher Work, this emphasis on breath became a unifying thread, connecting the various elements of the practice into a cohesive, living tapestry. Whether moving through a sequence on the Reformer or flowing through a series of standing, seated, and floor-based exercises, the breath was the animating force, imbuing each movement with a sense of intention and emotional resonance.

Adapting to the Needs of the Dance World

Of course, as my work evolved, I recognized the need to adapt certain aspects of the Pilates canon to better serve the unique demands of the dance community. While the classical Pilates equipment provided an unparalleled platform for targeted strengthening and rehabilitation, many dance studios simply didn’t have the space or resources to accommodate these bulky, specialized machines.

I began to develop a full curriculum of exercises and movement – standing in place, seated on the floor, and moving across the floor – 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.

My aim was to create a cohesive system of “Fletcher Floorwork” that would not only challenge and fulfill my workshop students, but also serve as a valuable complement to the equipment-based practice. I drew inspiration from classic Pilates exercises like the Hundreds, the Abdominals, the Mermaid, and the Teaser, adapting them to the demands of the dance floor while maintaining the essential principles of Contrology.

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 and getting all of its parts into correct alignment from the foot centers to the top of the back of the head.

In this way, the Fletcher Work became a true synthesis of the Pilates method and the Graham technique, blending the anatomical precision of the former with the artistry and expressive power of the latter. It was a dance-centric approach to movement that honored the unique needs and challenges facing performers, while still upholding the fundamental tenets of Contrology.

Passing the Torch

As the years have passed, I’ve had the profound privilege of watching the Fletcher Work take on a life of its own, spreading far beyond the confines of my original Beverly Hills studio. Through a rigorous certification process and the dedication of my hand-selected teachers, this system of Pilates-inspired movement has found its way into dance studios, universities, and rehabilitation clinics around the world.

Many instructors of the Pilates work protested vehemently, claiming that “Ron Fletcher does not teach classic Pilates – don’t study with him.” But I pulled away from using the Pilates name because I didn’t want my teachers or me to be harassed and possibly sued by someone claiming to have the rights to everything connected with it.

And yet, at the heart of it all, the core principles remain the same – a deep respect for the body’s innate intelligence, a reverence for breath as the animating force of movement, and an unwavering commitment to the artistic and therapeutic potential of Contrology. It’s a legacy that I’m honored to have played a role in shaping, and one that I know will continue to inspire dancers and movers for generations to come.

As Clara Pilates said to me, “It is in your blood – take it and go.” And that’s exactly what we’re striving to do, day in and day out, at the Musical Theater Center. We’re keeping the spirit of Pilates alive, while forging new pathways of expression and exploration. After all, as my own teachers taught me, the work is never truly finished – it’s an ongoing journey of discovery, just waiting to unfold.

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