Exploring Fletcher Pilates

How Ron Fletcher Developed His Style of Pilates - Insights from Kyria Sabin

Women exercise during a Pilates class.
Women exercise during a Pilates class.. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Ron Fletcher is one of a special group of Pilates people known as the Pilates Elders. That means that Ron studied with Joseph Pilates himself, and then helped to spread Joseph Pilates method through teaching it and training other instructors. But that is really a minimalist way of describing the Pilates Elders. Each one is a vivid individual who has not only kept Joseph Pilates' work going but infused it with their own character, insights, and personal experience of his method.

Ron Fletcher stands out as one of the Elders who, while staying true to an inner understanding of Joseph Pilates method, developed a particularly unique expression of the work.

Ron Fletcher said of Kyria Sabin, the current director of Fletcher Pilates, that "she is the ideal protégé and the best person to carry my work forward." On a fall afternoon in 2011 -- a day when Ron, who is in his 90s, was actually resting up in the hospital -- I got together with the Kyria to talk about Fletcher Pilates. As we discussed how Ron developed his work and what makes Fletcher Pilates unique, Kyria made the comment that it seemed for a while people didn't know how to fit Ron into the Pilates scene, but that now his work is being understood and appreciated. I think as you read on, you will see a fit between Ron's approach to movement and the rejuvenated interest in the full body/mind/spirit aspect of Pilates we are seeing in Pilates today.

When Kyria starts talking about Fletcher Pilates, she doesn't talk about new exercises, or Percussive Breathing(TM), or the Fletcher Towelwork(R) -- all of which are interesting parts of Fletcher Pilates. She talks about joy -- Ron's commitment to joy in movement and even in the stillness before we move.

It makes me think of videos of Ron teaching and moving where he is so clearly passionate about not just choreography, but also lines of energy and breath. So I am not surprised to hear Kyria say that finding the joy in movement is more important than gaining strength and flexibility.

Ron Fletcher and the Divine Mechanism

A natural extension of finding joy in movement is to learn to fully embody movement, and as we talk about that connection in Fletcher Pilates, Kyria shares a Ron Fletcher phrase that I just love. She says the intention is to fully embody "the divine mechanism." Which leads Kyria to point out a fundamental distinction in Fletcher Pilates between functional movement and movement potential. Functional fitness is a buzz word these days, but I sense that from a Fletcher Pilates perspective, it misses a kind of creative potential (the divine part of divine mechanism?) in our bodies. Ron's approach, Kyria says, is to ask, what movement can I pull out of this person? rather than looking at what they can't do or what needs to be modified.

Yet there is structure -- plenty of choreography and precision. The question in Fletcher Pilates, she says, is: "what are people capable of within a system of structured movement." It's a more open perspective than what needs to be fixed?

Of course, that sense of joy in movement hearkens back to Ron's background as a dancer and member of the Martha Graham dance company. It was actually dance injury that took Ron to Joseph Pilates' studio in 1949, a move that Martha disapproved of despite the similarities Ron saw in Joe's and Martha's approach to movement -- think of a Graham contraction and stomach massage on the reformer, Kyria says. Another dance influence on Ron's approach to movement was the Japanese choreographer Yeichi Nimura. In Nimura's work, Ron found the cat-like, animal movement that Joseph Pilates said his work was inspired by. But when it comes to the Pilates method, it was Clara Pilates that Ron was closest to.

Ron Fletcher and Clara Pilates

When we look at the innovations that Ron Fletcher brought to his style of Pilates, we might in part see them as a natural result of him being a creative person already in the arts; but we also have to acknowledge a kind of sanction that Ron got from Clara Pilates to take the work forward. Kyria relates that Clara said of Ron that he understood the foundation of Joe's work, the overarching concepts we now call Pilates principles, and that she knew he would develop the work but not take it too far. Clara told Ron: "I trust you. You know it. You understand it." She asked him to teach at the studio in New York but Ron wanted to be in L.A. at the time and he founded a studio there that became popular with many stars.

Kyria told a story of Ron Fletcher and Clara Pilates that relates to how the door opened to change the work: One day, Clara was teaching Ron and said "give me your foot." Ron hesitated because that would mean straddling the machine and one of Joe's rules was to never straddle the machine. But Clara said to Ron, "Joe is not here, give me your foot!" Ron went on to develop a whole program straddling the machine. Joe taught each individual differently and so did Clara, and Ron took his cue from that. But he was not, Kyria says, changing the work without staying grounded in fundamentals and intention. "With Ron it was always, here's what I've developed, and here's why."

Unique Aspects of Fletcher Pilates

So what made Fletcher Pilates such a distinctive style? Clearly Ron himself, his character and energy, and the things we've talked about already; but what I ask Kyria about now are some of the specifics in terms of form. Before we go there, however, I want to point out that Fletcher Pilates is not just about being different. It is still very recognizable as Pilates -- with familiar equipment and exercises. We are talking about the unique aspects so that you can get a sense of how Ron Fletcher shaped and shared his Pilates experience over 60-plus years.

Kyria highlights a few of the unique aspects of Fletcher Pilates:

  • Taking the work vertical - Ron, Kyria says, was the first to take the work fully into standing, including moving across the floor (clearly inspired by his dance background).
  • Fletcher Towelwork(R) - This is a program of coordinated movement and breath that was originally done with a rolled towel. It helps teach shoulder stabilization and use of the arms. Today, Fletcher Pilates has a signature red braided towel developed specifically for this work.
  • Percussive Breathing(TM) technique - Ron Fletcher took Joseph Pilates emphasis on breathing fully and brought more definition to it with percussive breathing, Kyria says. Percussive Breathing(TM) is a dynamic breath technique. The accompanying sound is a by-product of the activation of the core musculature, what Ron calls "the breathing apparatus". It is coordinated with movement, and it sometimes divides the inhale or exhale into a series of shorter bursts of taking in or releasing the air. Kyria observes, however, that over the years Percussive Breathing has been misunderstood and become forced and too harsh. "There should still be a softness to the breathing. It is meant to match the quality of the movement and energize that," she says. Learn Ron's Clock, an exercise with Percussive Breath.

I want to close this small window into Ron Fletcher's very large life's work in Pilates with something Kyria said at the beginning of our conversation. She mentions how wonderful it is that people are rediscovering Ron's work while he is still with us. I agree, and reflect on how lucky we are that so many of our Pilates Elders have been able to share the work throughout very long lives. Of course, Fletcher Pilates has always had a profile in the Pilates industry, but I too see that there is new kind of conversation going on in Pilates that reflects more interest in what Kyria says of Fletcher Pilates: that it is about joy in movement, opening to the possibilities in the body, and being "more movement based than exercise based."

Much thanks to Kyria Sabin for sharing her insights into Fletcher Pilates.

Author's Note: Just a few weeks after this article was published, Ron Fletcher passed away. He was born May 29, 1921 and died December 6, 2011.

Fletcher Pilates training is widely available in the U.S. and abroad. In addition there are teacher training campuses in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. For more information and to find a studio or teacher training, see the Fletcher Pilates website. Kyria Sabin's studio, Body Works Pilates, is in Tucson Arizona.

Additional Source:

Dvorak, H. (2011, September/October) A Conversation with Ron Fletcher. Pilates Style Magazine

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