An Interview with Rob McWilliams
By Russell Stolzoff, Basic and Advanced Rolfing Instructor and Rob McWilliams, Certified Advanced Rolfer™,
Rolf Movement® Practitioner
ABSTRACT Many people may not immediately associate dance with sports, yet a dancer is without doubt a high-functioning athlete. In this column, our Sports Editor Russell Stolzoff interviews Rob McWilliams about his professional dance career and his current work as a Rolfer and Rolf Movement practitioner.
Russell Stolzoff: Rob, how do you approach movement with your clients?
Rob McWilliams: So, I love spontaneous movement that gets elicited by good structural work. Often it is very simple and gets expressed with the statement, “I feel,” and then they make a movement gesture. I do have Kevin Frank to thank for getting me to key in on that moment and facilitating the client’s awareness of the movement they made and then mirrorring it back to them. I’m good at that.
I think sometimes regarding movement you have to be careful to not do too much. I’m reminded of a great story from my Unit 2 class with Jane Harrington. I was giving a Ninth Hour, and directing my client to feel the length of their spine from their sit bones to the top of their head, while finding movement at the AO in nodding, and finding their breath. Afterward, Jane simply said to me, “Rob, you are very functional, but you are overtaxing your client. Stop it!” She didn’t say, “You might want to do it with simpler cues”; she just emphatically said, “Stop it!” It took me a couple of years, but I did stop, and mostly all I do now is facilitate what shows up, and that’s fabulous. Essentially, this is what I do with the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute® students who come for their required movement sessions. Those sessions should be about their embodiment, not about teaching what is correct – or at least in my office. It’s about working with what they want to work on, what shows up.
RS: So, more focused on their experience of themselves?
RMW: In contrast, in phase 3 [of their Rolfing Structural Integration (SI) training] they learn the basics about working with clients and movement, in my opinion. And, also, that’s what Ray McCall and I hammered out together for the student handbook. I don’t know if it’s still in there, but [it was about doing] these three basic movement sessions.
RS: How did you how first encounter Rolfing SI? What was happening in your life, and your professional life, when you first got Rolfing sessions?
RMW: I met Don Van Vleet in ballet class in New York City. [Editor’s note: see page 48 for a tribute to Don Van Vleet.] It must have been 1985 or ’86. He was a great little ballet dancer. He could turn like a top, it was wonderful. I found out he was a Rolfer, and I didn’t really know what that was, but I had some injuries I needed to work through. He took me through my first Ten Series and then also did some advanced work with me later. I had a great experience with that.
RS: Were you dancing professionally?
RMW: Yes, in New York City I danced with the Murray Louis Dance Company, a modern dance company. We toured around the world including touring in tandem with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I continued working as a performer and later as a professor of dance for about twenty-six years total before I started doing this work.
RS: What do you remember about that experience? And what made you want to be a Rolfer?
RMW: Initially, I sort of put it away for a later day because I was so involved with what I was doing. But [getting Rolfing sessions] really enhanced my performance. Athletically, I definitely improved. I hit my athletic peak around age twenty-eight or twenty-nine because of the Rolfing [work]. That enjoyment in the body was at another level, where things really felt more knit together. It was easier for me to hold my arms over my head and do things while they were there. Everything connected better, and not just in the balletic stuff, but also in modern dance I was able to better articulate different parts of my body and to work with dynamic range in a much fuller way. So, it made me a more expressive artist.
RS: That’s super cool.
RMW: Yeah, and I had other people, people that I had been touring with for years, like Chris Brubeck, Dave’s son, who played bass and trombone, asking, “What’s going on? You’re jumping higher, you’re dancing better than I’ve ever seen.” And I’d already toured with him for two years or so at that point. So, that was interesting, right? It’s a long time ago, man [laughs].
RS: I think it’s significant because people who read this column are interested in performance, and what Rolfing SI can do for performance.
RMW: All the dancers I’ve talked to who have done Rolfing sessions mention that their performance improves athletically, that their balance improves, and their technique in dance improves.
RS: How then did you decide to train as a Rolfer?
RMW: I hit a crossroad in my life where I needed to do something different and Rolfing SI had always been in the back of my mind. Russell, seriously, I wandered into the Rolf Institute® [now the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute®] and said, “I think I want to do this.” And they said, “Well, there’s a class starting tomorrow.” And that’s how it happened.
RS: And here you are!
RMW: Right, like twelve years later. October 7, 2007 – that’s when you graduated us.
RS: That’s right. Wow, it’s been twelve years. It seems to me like you’ve been doing this longer than that.
RMW: Me too! [laughs] It’s cool.
RS: I just had my thirtieth anniversary as a Rolfer. It’s pretty weird. Now in your work, do you work with a lot of dancers and/or other athletes?
RMW: I’ve had some good experiences lately with athletes. I’ve got one woman who’s doing Olympic trials right now in marathon. It’s interesting because she comes from a more explosive background in track. She’s maybe thirty years old now. It’s amazing to watch her explode at the end of a marathon. I’ve never seen anything like it. She was having some nagging injuries and then she started working with me. She credits me as being part of a team that helped her get up to the next level.
I have one other sixty-seven-year-old woman who got her personal best in the Boston Marathon. She had been teaching running and walking for a long time and had some issues with her pelvis and sciatic nerve. I helped her to get that personal best time.
I just finished working with a young woman on the track team at Colorado State University. She seemed to have a sacrum that literally was kind of stove-in. I did some strong intraosseous work on her sacrum, and suddenly she’s running better. This was not my first session with her. It was a fourth session, I had already tried a bunch of other stuff, then she finally told me she had fallen really hard on her sacrum – then I realized what I’d been missing.
This is something I wanted to say in relation to movement and Rolfing SI: often we, and other types of practitioners, think of improvement by changing how somebody runs, or changing how somebody walks. In this instance, I had just missed this structural issue, and when I got to it she was so happy afterwards. She was just all smiles, ready to start her season.
RS: I’d like to know your thoughts about the value of working with structure in a direct way, versus a more functional approach. I especially want to ask you this because in the current milieu there is a popular belief that structure doesn’t really matter very much, that it’s not mutable, and that the best way to deal with everything is through function. You know, the pendulum swings, and in my observation it’s been over into the functional end of things for a while. I’m a big fan of all kinds of functional work. But as Rolfers it’s a little threatening to our point of view [to say] that structure doesn’t matter. And even within our own community there is a held belief that we can’t really change structure through manipulation. I know this is a big question.
RMW: It’s a lot to respond to, but my basic response is I work with structure. You would think coming from my background that I would be drawn to working primarily in movement disciplines like the Feldenkrais Method®, like Alexander Technique, both of which I did a fair amount of. There’s one thing: in some situations, the functional approach is the only way to get started. In some ways, every structural contact for me has a movement perception element. But, the reason that I focus on structure is that I see it’s a missing link – for example, with the college runner I mentioned, it wasn’t working just to focus on how she ran. It’s very important to keep learning about structural work, to keep taking classes, to keep investigating. The interosseous work I did with her sacrum is stuff that I didn’t know about five years ago, and so I wouldn’t have been able to assess that restriction or know what to do. So yes, structural work matters. Yes, it does have an effect, especially if you get it right. There’s no other way to put it. And sometimes you don’t get it right.
RS: Can you describe the trajectory of your perception that has gotten you to the place where you now can do something that you didn’t even know existed before?
RMW: Well, first of all, I want to say that when people come out of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute, you get good results, even with just with the tools that you have when you finish your training. Then, you might learn some new stuff and suddenly be able to see that new stuff, and then be able to work with that. But, it’s still built on the bed of what you learned at the Institute. You know, there is a long awkward phase where you’re trying out new stuff. For me, working with the sacrum was a real challenge for a while when I first started working as a Rolfer, and this example applies to other parts of the body and issues as well.
RS: Let’s talk some more about the work you do with dancers.
RMW: One good example that comes to mind is a guy who was on tour and came to my office on the recommendation of his choreographer. He had some alignment stuff going on. He was a very strong young guy who had a lot of training, but he had some issues that made it hard for him to do some of the things that he wanted to be able to do technically as a dancer. I also know very well what he means when he says, “I want to be able to do tours à la sèconde,” which means holding your leg out to the side in a certain shape and doing turns when you’re standing up on the ball of your foot on the other leg.
The kind of work that he needed wasn’t that different than what you would do with anybody. His adductors were really tied up in his right leg, he had some restrictions in his pelvis as it relates to the lumbars – I mean, that’s how you would work with anybody. It’s just that I knew specifically what he was trying to do and he got it. I saw him in a performance and he got it.
RS: So, are you saying that it’s not that different?
RMW: Yeah, and [it’s good to] know what they’re trying to do. I think it is helpful for Rolfers to at least look at some film, or go see some performances of people at a high level.
RS: So let me ask you a more framed question. What do you think is important for Rolfers who endeavor to work with dancers in particular, but really any type of athlete, in terms of how they understand what that athlete is trying to do? Is it important that they understand the movement in order to help the person be able to do something better as an athlete?
RMW: Let me start by putting out a couple of philosophical statements. For dancers, generally speaking, you’re trying to get their efforts organized closer to the midline. This is not very different for any other athlete, though. You’re going to try to make it so that they have better leverage. It’s all about leverage, it’s all about fulcrum.
In direct response to your question, that is a really hard question! [laughs] I think it’s more like, stay open about that one, and do not impose your constructs of
what proper movement is, because it will probably send them out of your office. If you tell a dancer to never do turnout and to never go into the splits, they’ll probably find somebody else who can work with them in a more open-minded way. I’ve heard from plenty of clients who’ve been told not to allow turnout when they walk, and I don’t think that’s the way you want to work with dancers in particular. I don’t work that way with anybody. I look at what their structure says.
RS: As a follow-up, I’m wondering could a Rolfer who doesn’t understand the intricacies of dance be as helpful as a Rolfer who does, just by applying what they know about integration when working with a dancer?
RMW: Well, when you phrase it that way, the answer is yes, they can. If the Rolfer does have an understanding of integration, it means they’re seeing how the client is bringing things together when they observe their movement. If they are able to observe their client’s response to the work, and develop an appreciation of what integration means for each particular client, then it shouldn’t matter so much if they have a background in athletics or dance to be able to help that person.
RS: In the course of doing this column I’ve also heard the opinion that it’s really important to know the sport or have a background in what you’re trying to help the person with – that’s where my question is coming from. I never played football, but I’ve done Rolfing sessions for football players.
RMW: What did you play?
RS: I played basketball and volleyball. I feel like I’m a pretty astute observer of movement, and that’s what allows me to presume that I could be helpful to somebody who plays a sport that I never played. That said, I had a profound learning experience trying to help a professional drummer: until he brought in his practice kick drum, and until I tried to do what I’d been trying to help him with, I didn’t understand something completely profound about what I was trying to help him with. But I’m not sure that other than enriching my appreciation it really changed how I approached working with him, if you follow what I mean.
RMW: Something like Alexander Technique is really good with that sort of stuff, where they get people to find a way to engage while they’re doing an activity, like playing a guitar. There are some good elements of those techniques in Rolf Movement, and they can be very helpful for finding ways to have people feel their serratus, and feel their sit- bone connection, and have a sense of spiral in their seated position while they’re playing – rather than playing all hunched over and gripped in bilateral symmetry, for instance. So, there are certainly aspects of the Rolf Movement training that help with that kind of thing, weird activities like the foot pedal on a drum, or playing a guitar, or hammering dents out of a car. [laughs] Anyway, my movement background has come in handy for those kinds of weird situations for sure. Maybe it’s just my confidence level with it as much as anything. I may be full of shit, but I’m definitely willing to try with those things.
I think the basic question is really a good question. And yes, I do think that it helps to be interested in all kinds of human movement and be curious about how the person moves, but in the end, working with them on the table, you’re going to find stuff anyway. And you open that according to your best judgment as a structural integrator, and then hopefully good things happen, and then you learn that way too.
RS: That’s a great statement, Rob. Tell me a little bit about how you use the interplay between structural and movement work.
RMW: I thought about this since you sent me some questions. I really love that moment of spontaneous movement that comes out after a structural restriction has been released. I really, really love that. It’s very special and unique to our work in some ways. It’s not something that you prompt. It’s not something that is related to any kind of philosophy. You can relate it, possibly, to some terms, like palintonicity or adaptability. It’s that wonderful moment where somebody stands up and says, “I feel different” – and then they make a gesture coming out of that difference. Then, I mirror it back to them with my body – bigger, or smaller, or the same, however I decide that day. That’s the beginning of a way to flesh out their elicited response that perhaps came from enhanced sensation. That movement by them, that is perception, that is them integrating it, that is them getting a handle on it. Words come later, and then we flush it out together with the movement, and they say, “I feel stronger,” and they make a gesture with their fingers. I want to give a shout out to Kevin Frank – he has a thing called ‘perceptual core stability’. That’s what I work for, but I do it through structural work primarily first.
RS: So you are noticing something that they do, and pointing it out to them by mirroring it, that they wouldn’t necessarily know they did if you hadn’t seen it and drawn their attention back to it.
RMW: That’s absolutely right. And that becomes the basis for an exploration, a small movement exploration. With Dr. Ida Rolf Institute students, the exploration is more drawn out, but it’s the same source. Often I’ll do a little structural work with them, and it will be based on something that they’re curious about, or something that I saw them walk in with. I’m dedicated to movement work, that is what turns me on about this work. Ironically, mostly I keep myself together with movement. I don’t see Rolfers. I don’t see really anybody.
RS: I’ve wanted to ask you about something that made me excited about doing this interview with you. I’ve noticed on Facebook that you post videos of yourself doing little exercises,. I’ve been impressed by those. They’re very simple and they’re usually for something.
RMW: Right, made for a particular client often . . .
RS: But then you post it on your page. So, I’ve been curious about that. You discover something that’s useful for a particular situation. They’re very simple movements, that’s the thing that I like about them.
RMW: I have found that clients do well to have a video record of a particular movement that I think would be nice for them to work with. I also have enjoyed translating some of the basic ideas from structural work into simple movement. What’s funny is that sometimes that ends up looking like something straight out of a jazz dance class – like, I’m going for a non-physiologic motion in the clavicle that ends up pumping the joint and it looks like Gus Giordano doing this jazz dance routine in New York City in a dance studio in 1985, you know? But I do enjoy doing those and I think at some point it would be great to go back and try to compile them into something.
One thing in particular is an eccentric motion for the calves, a particular way of doing it that I teach people where they make sure to track their ankles properly. I usually give them something to hold between the ankles and the knees, and it’s called ‘two up, one down.’ So, you just go up on two feet, down on one, and you do it with very straight knees, and then you do it with slightly bent knees. That’s a mishmash of all kinds of stuff that I learned. Sam Iannetta, a really great fitness trainer, talked to me about the importance of eccentric contraction for healing tendons. I don’t have tennis elbow anymore; I had it so bad at one point, the veritable ‘can’t lift a gallon of milk’. If anything like that comes up, I know how to heal it now. It’s great. So the exercise stuff . . . I do it all on myself for sure.
RS: Didn’t you have a case of drop foot at one point?
RMW: Oh my God, yes! I got stuff, man. Yeah, I had total foot drop on this left leg from a back injury in 2005. When I worked with you, it was pretty bad still, to where it was hard for me to stand on one leg. This actually gets into an interesting thing, which is the interface between sensory awareness work, like Kevin Frank’s ‘perceptual core stability’, just plain old strength training, and in my case a little plain old power training. I don’t think that the progression of that is necessarily linear. Sometimes you’ve got to scoop back to one and then come back to the other. For instance, it was really important for me with my left hip – I have no cartilage in my left hip – to just start strengthening that thing. Four years ago I couldn’t lift my knee to get out of the car. It hurt so much. I just started working to strengthen the area. I did my eccentrics for the hip. I did one of the videos on the movement that I created for that with ankle weights. I love ankle weights for that kind of thing.
RS: You don’t have pain?
RMW: I only have pain if I try to run on the flats. I can run uphill. I’m not so great going downhill right now. And I know how these things go. I mean, it could show up. But at this time I’m fine., and I just strengthen the hell out of this hip.
RS: How do you know which approach to take with a client, when, and how much?
RMW: I don’t know if I have a good answer for that one. Sometimes the answer emerges from the client. I think when we do structural work, or slow, gentle movement work, we’re always working with the perceptual level. You’ve got to see what emerges because you can’t force that on somebody. You can’t force them to understand something. It has to emerge, that’s my opinion. That’s my modus operandi.
I don’t try to teach people how to walk – it just doesn’t work, not for me. (Somebody else might be able to.)
I like change in gait to show up, and then I’ll say, “Notice what you’re doing and how does that . . .”
RS: Well, I think it’s more natural. The idea of suggesting a correct way can introduce problems and create confusion for people.
RMW: As a musician, and as a dancer, I feel . . . and believe also that athletes are like this . . . it’s nice to have an interplay between spontaneous and formal approaches in movement. I think that’s a really nice thing for humans to have. I think we like conditioning too, but I try to put it in very surreptitiously. For instance, I’ll put it into back work by having somebody do a sidebend, and then round forward, and come back to the side, and come up. With my voice I get this cadence going, and then I’m able to get an effect up into the ribs and vertebrae without trying too hard. Sometimes they won’t be able to do it, so we’ll figure it out. So I like to mix the formal and the free.
RS: That’s really nice. I think people will like to read this.
Rob McWilliams danced for ten years with the Murray Louis Dance Company, including touring and New York City performances with the Dave Brubeck Quartet combining live jazz and modern dance. He has a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from New York University, spent another fifteen years working in Europe and the United States as a professional dancer, actor, and teacher, including university teaching stints as assistant professor at the University of Flor and the University of Oklahoma. Rob is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner.
Russell Stolzoff is a lifelong athlete whose understanding of Rolfing SI’s impact on embodiment and performance dates back to the dramatic improvements in balance and quickness he experienced from his first Ten Series in 1983. For the past thirty years he has devoted his professional life to elevating his skills as a practitioner and instructor. In 2010, Russell founded Stolzoff Sportworks to bring the benefits of Rolfing SI to professional athletes. He was instrumental in helping members of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks stay in the game and perform at the highest level en route to two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and the 2013 Super Bowl NFL Championship. Russell’s diverse background includes scientific research and studies in Somatic Experiencing® trauma resolution and Bodynamic Analysis (a developmental approach to body psychotherapy). Russell is a member of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute (DIRI) Advanced Faculty and chairs the DIRI Executive Education Committee. He lives and practices in Bellingham, Washington.
Russell Stolzoff, the Journal’s Sports Editor, is interested in talking with you about your sports Rolfing stories. He can be reached at [email protected].