Q & A with Tom: Ida Rolf and Tensegrity

Question via email from a colleague: 

Hi Tom,

Quick question. Do you have some reference of Ida Rolf ever talking or writing about Buckminster Fuller and Tensegrity?

Tom replies: 

Hi back

I have seen no writing of hers on Bucky or tensegrity – Jeff Lynn is who I would ask, his historical brain might know of something.

To my knowledge they never met, though Bucky did get a session from Jim Asher. In the run-up Bucky resisted the ‘integration’ idea, insisting he’s been taught to ’stand up straight in the Navy’. I never saw Bucky after the session to ask him about it, but reportedly it helped him with his short leg…

All the talking with her about tensegrity in my presence occurred at her last advanced training in Philadelphia in the fall of 1978.

Ron Kirkby’s article – ‘The Probable Reality behind SI’ – had just come out, and reading it, I was just having a Saul on the road to Damascus moment myself:

I could link my earlier work with Bucky (which was about social planning, but I had absorbed some of tensegrity along the way) with my work with Ida -and how stupid I was not to link them up earlier.

I brought this to Dr Rolf, or rather, it became part of the morning discussion in class one day, and she said tensegrity was what she was going for in using the word ’span’ (Ger: spannung).

I agree with the span idea, what Jeff Maitland called ‘palintonic’ – an even tone across the body’s myofascia, instead of islands of tension amidst a sea of laxity.

That said, I took from that day that she saw it as an interesting theory, but without practical application to her work.

I know she never saw Tom Flemons’ models or, to my knowledge, got into the math like Marvin Solit, the only other polymath I know to combine Ida and Bucky.

(Marvin, gone now, ended up with Pak Subud, doing non-directed body movement, a step Ida could not reportedly make when a lot of the Gurdjieff followers in her Bennett group went off to follow Subud – ’not enough intellectual satisfaction’ is what she reportedly said about Subud.)

The main thrust of ‘Biotensegrity’, that powered Ron’s and Peter Melchior’s understanding as he conveyed it to me just a bit later, came from orthopedist Dr Steven Levin, and he still runs that site. He’s a wonderful advocate, but a little too doctrinaire for me to be wedded to his group.

I find tensegrity an important concept, worth the time to unfold it, as it leads into bodyreading relationships instead of ‘faults. And provides a better theory than either Rolf or Pilates for ‘relaxing into length’ – how the body can get longer yet looser without magic.

So: Aware of it in the end, and not rejecting it

But you’ve read her book: She grew up in, and was very deeply steeped in, Newtonian anatomy even as she stepped beyond Newtonian Cartesian epistemology.

That she did not grasp the nettle of this new idea firmly in her last days, when death loomed, I am neither surprised, nor do I expect it of myself when the next big idea burgeons close to my own death.

— Tom Myers, Clark’s Cove Maine, August 2023