By Derek Gill and Rob McWilliams, Certified Advanced Rolfers™ and Rolf Movement® Practitioners, with contributions from Donnalea Van Vleet Goelz
ABSTRACT Colleagues from dance and Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) share memories of Don Van Vleet, Rolfer and dancer.
The final performance of Rolfer and dancer Don Van Vleet’s ‘dance’ came much too early on May 2, 2018, at the age of sixty- one. Both the ballet community and the SI community continue to benefit from his efforts and innovation, which live on in the work of Robert McWilliams and Derek Gill among many others that he touched and taught.
What follows are highlights from Don Van Vleet’s ‘dance’ as a professional ballet dancer and SI practitioner, as well as the ‘dance’ of two current SI practitioners who were blessed to dance with him: Robert McWilliams, a professional dancer whose career was extended by his work with Don, and Derek Gill, a former corporate consultant whom Rob encouraged to seek out Don for SI sessions and mentorship. We also share some words from Donnalea Van Vleet Goelz, Don’s sister and the Executive Director of Continuum.
Rob McWilliams: He could turn like a metronomic top: his head and eyes would ‘spot’ (a tiny delay where the head appears to stop relative to the rest of the turning body) to the front in four to six clean, legible rotations every time.
Derek Gill: One of my most interesting sessions with Don was where he proposed that we should be using Rolfing SI to impact the microtubules [of the cells] as they were the connection to the cosmos and our blueprint. He was also a cultured student of the arts and would talk metaphorically about how our sessions should have tempo changes, variations in pressure, breaks, linear segments and abstract segments, etc., in order to provide novel stimulation that would interrupt the person’s pattern.
RMW: He liked to sweat! I watched him put in the hard work it takes to sustain your body and technique in Finis Jhung’s advanced ballet classes that we both attended on the Upper West Side in New York City. He had honed his craft over many years of performance, including working with the National Ballet (which later became The Washington Ballet), Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Harkness Ballet. Like many dancers, myself included, he learned about rehabilitating injuries by healing himself.
DG: My first encounter with dancers other than on stage was in my Phase I in Boulder. Rob McWilliams and Angela Hill both had dance backgrounds and I loved the way they expressed themselves through their bodies and their astute sense of themselves spatially. When I started receiving sessions and apprenticing under Don, it reinforced my hunch that dancers know their bodies in ways that most of us never will. He introduced me to the philosophies of Mabel Todd and others, and shared how his journey of injury and rehabilitation had informed his vision of how an efficient body should move.
RMW: I very much remember his touch, like a laser scalpel in precision. After receiving Don’s initial series, I got feedback from people I worked with that I was jumping higher, was generally more athletic, and had a cleaner dance technique. One of those commenting was Chris Brubeck (Dave Brubeck’s son), who had watched me from the stage performing big athletic solos for about two years before I did the Ten Series with Don. A shift in energetic presence and embodiment came then, too, and I got feedback on that, in subtle ways, though often it was just something about how I had ‘improved’.
DG: Don was also a consummate ‘leg man’. If I learned nothing else from him, it was the mantra that the feet and legs must be organized if anything else above is to have a hope of holding our work. He would bring out all sorts of props such as straps, pads, and curved tables to stimulate the organization he envisaged.
RMW: His strapping techniques came in handy for me and helped me extend my career (though they weirded people out who watched me wrapping myself up in the straps in a bondage-like barber-pole
setup on legs and thighs). I used these and other self-tracking techniques specific to ballet-based movement for decades afterwards.
DG: I remember him telling me, “We must work to make the tendons function like flat ribbons, hugging the bones so that we are able to use the bones for leverage instead of ropy tendons that are too taut from shortened muscles. This is how a ballet dancer is able to perform night after night without much recovery time.”
Donnalea Van Vleet Goelz: As a result of several injuries sustained while dancing, Don shifted his talents and focus to develop healing and recovery methods for injuries caused by extreme physical activities. Don was always excited to share interesting stories from his colorful past as well as insights from his current discoveries. One of his favorites, having grown up in a sports and wrestling family (our mother was the world champion wrestler, Violet Ray), was his love of wrestling with the family’s pet bear. A conversation with him about his area of healing might take you into the sub- cellular world of microtubules or into an alternative universe of quantum foam.
Forging new pathways in our understanding of human anatomy and physiology, Don redefined the way we think about illness and developed strategies to bring us to an evolutionary wellness. Emilie Conrad and Don started collaborating and teaching together in the early 1990s. Their work influenced and informed each other in how they saw and understood the biological world that we live in. Donald created his own special technique of combining manual manipulation, Continuum Movement®, and energy work.
DG: I remember being a student in a class where Don and Emilie were both present and realizing that the two of them must be from some other planet, and were sent to share their knowledge with us. Emilie would often stop her train of thought to ask for Don’s input. You could tell she enjoyed having him there, and that he stimulated and fed her.
RMW: I remember going to his very snug two-bedroom Manhattan apartment/ office for sessions, where he even had an isolation tank in one of the bedrooms that he charged people to use. I now realize that the opening and deepening that he facilitated in me planted seeds of curiosity regarding personal as well as professional growth for the future. Don was a role model for me – a dancer evolved into a healer. He was inspiring to me then, in what was relatively early on in his SI trajectory.
DG: Don vastly expanded what I thought was possible with our work. He was a master synthesizer, which very much seemed to honor what I understand to be the nature of Dr. Rolf herself. He
brought a precise understanding of movement and functional biomechanics into his work as an Advanced Rolfer. He was a graduate of the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, a certified Hakomi practitioner, and had extensive time learning visceral work with Jean-Pierre Barral and Mantak Chia. He had a working knowledge of everything from Chinese medicine to herbal medicine to nutrition to shamanism to quantum physics (the list could go on and on!). He firmly believed that Dr. Rolf would want us to keep innovating and felt he was at the forefront of that mission. I couldn’t agree more and was blessed by the time I was able to spend with him.
Derek Gill is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner, DO-MTP (Canada), Certified Cranio- Sacral Therapist, and Berry Method® Apprentice. He practices in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. His website is www. advancedmanualtherapeutics.com.
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. Rob spent fifteen years working in Europe and the US as a professional dancer, actor, and teacher, including teaching stints as assistant professor at the University of Florida, and at the University of Oklahoma. Rob is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner.
Donnalea Van Vleet Goelz, PhD, is the sister of Don Van Vleet and the Executive Director of Continuum Movement.