An estimated 12 million people around the world practise Pilates. Conceived and developed in the early part of the last century by Joseph Pilates, a German immigrant who settled in New York, and his wife Clara, it is a series of movements designed to build strength and balance in the body. Devotees include ballet dancers, injured sports people and wiry celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Jennifer Aniston.
If only they could meet Ron Fletcher. Whether they know it or not, they are probably only practising Pilates because of him. And a session under his guidance could turn the beliefs of even the most dedicated students of the method on their heads. In Ron Fletcher's world, there is no such thing as "doing Pilates". "Well, it's like Kleenex," he says, referring to the appropriation of Joseph Pilates' name as a brand that describes his system of what he called "body contrology". "'I'm doing Pilates' doesn't mean anything." Nor, apparently, does the celebrated "Pilates breathing". "I read something the other day, some annoying person: 'We use the Pilates breathing.' I don't know what it is! I was never taught any Pilates breathing. All I was taught was you needed to breathe." And what about Pilates' focus on strengthening the core muscles? "It's all 'the core' and 'the pelvic floor'. What are they talking about? We never heard anything about that at the studio," insists Fletcher. "What we got was, 'Butt, stomach, shoulders'."
The studio Fletcher is referring to is that of Joseph and Clara Pilates. He trained there, first of all while working with the Martha Graham Dance Company, to avoid having to have career-ending surgery on an injured knee, and later, while in recovery from an addiction to alcohol which culminated in him missing the Madison Square Garden opening night of a show that he had choreographed. He represents the first link in a chain that connects the Pilates with the movement based on their work and, as he travels the world, allows students and teachers a once-removed communion with the source itself, not to mention a sharp corrective to some common mistakes about the method.
For example: "The trouble with this work, in general, is that people mistake it for an exercise regimen, and it's not. It's an art and it's a science and it's a study of movement. Many of the people who are so-called 'doing Pilates' 10 years from now will still be doing the same thing they're doing now. They'll never get up to that point of saying, "Whee! Wow!" where you want to shout with joy at what you can do."
That progression to the next level, he says, with a knowing tap to the temple, is all in the mind. "You think about what you're doing. It was Martha [Graham] who said, 'I could put my hand out and I could do this'" - he limply waves his hand about - "'And then I don't have to think about anything. It doesn't matter.' But, she said, 'If I do that'" - he raises his hand like an emperor, one noble line from finger tip to shoulder - "'it's the most important thing in the world that's happening at that moment.' It doesn't matter that people are dying, and that everything is running rampant and that Bush is still alive ... it's that. Well, that's what it takes."
At 87, Fletcher is still handsome, physically powerful and commanding, with a nimble mind and an elegant turn of phrase. He carries the tang of bright lights and Broadway, not the musty air of exercise studios. It is easy to see why generations of students have fallen under his spell. "It's a performance," he says. "Every time you teach, it's a performance. And it has got to hold your students. Having been a dancer, I know how important that is. If I walk into a room with a group of people I've got to get that audience."
After the death of Joseph Pilates, in 1967 (the same year as Fletcher's first AA meeting), Fletcher was encouraged by Clara to teach the method. Wanting a change of scene, he moved to Los Angeles and set up shop above the beauty parlour belonging to Aida Grey - "the beauty maven of Beverly Hills" - in a prime spot on the corner of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard.
It was an almost instant success. "The first people who came were the Betsy Bloomingdales and Nancy Reagans," he recalls. "All those ladies who went to lunch at the bistro and then went shopping. They all came in their Chanel suits and bags to Aida downstairs for the comb-out and then upstairs to work with me. It was the thing to do. But I really had a hard time because they were hard to teach. They were not serious about it. They really didn't quite understand what I was talking about. It didn't mean a whole lot and it was boring me to death. My business manager, who knew me as a dancer, said, 'I just thought one day he's going to march out of there screaming, "Fuck you!"' He was amazed. I was kind of amazed too."
But as news of Ron Fletcher spread - aided by TV slots, magazine columns and the author Judith Krantz, who used the line: "If you're not in Ron Fletcher's Rolodex, you may as well leave town" in one of her novels - so the clientele changed. Fletcher happily name-drops Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Dyan Cannon and Barbra Streisand: "And these were intelligent people and they were performers. All of that group were wonderful students. Wonderful students."
More importantly, as Pilates was withering away in New York, the success of Fletcher in Los Angeles meant that the work underwent a renaissance with his own high profile, and that of his students introducing the method to new audiences. In June 1983, Fletcher participated 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 Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, who, impressed by Fletcher's work, went on to open a Pilates facility at the hospital. Fletcher also devised a development crucial to the spread of Pilates: floor work.
Originally, rack-like machines with ominous names like "the Reformer" were instrumental to the practice. But increasingly invited by out-of-town dance companies, and enthusiasts wanting to arrange workshops near their homes, Fletcher had to devise a way of teaching without the machines. "It was very easy to adapt so much of the Reformer work to the floor. It was all there." At his first workshop, the clients were wowed. "They just thought that was wonderful. By the time I left there I think I had five offers: 'Can you come to Lake Placid, can you come to Cape Cod?' So that's the way my roadwork started, and it spread. And everywhere we'd go there'd be more people."
He does agree that it's better if you have the machines. "It takes some talent to do it on the floor," he says, acknowledging that for the complete beginner, familiarising yourself with the subtle tugs and pulls that make for effective practice can take a lot of concentration, especially with no apparatus to help you feel your way. But then if Fletcher hadn't come up with a way for people to practise the method without needing the equipment, you probably wouldn't have heard of Pilates at all.
And that is why Fletcher is still in demand all over the world - a strange development for someone who never thought he knew enough to teach. But, he says, he remembers the rule that Martha Graham taught him about teaching. "You tell them what you're going to tell them, then you tell it to them, then you tell them what you told them. Then you start over".
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