Why I Became a Rolfer - David Delaney


David George Delaney, Certified Advanced Rolfer®

Rolfing Basic Training in 1985- Boulder, Colorado- Peter Melchior

Advanced Rolfing Training 1991: Berkeley, California- Michael Salveson


I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the East Coast - I attended Catholic Grade School in a poorer part of town that was an unwelcoming, aggressive place, at least for me. I never felt safe going to school. I got beaten up regularly by other kids, as well as one of the nuns who whacked me pretty good in the face one day. I watched a fellow classmate get lifted up and thrown onto a couch by a Franciscan Brother during a retreat. Needless to say, I never felt safe and carried a lot of fear in my body-psyche. As the oldest of 8, my father was big on corporal punishment as many of his generation were in the 50s and 60s. He believed that using the belt on my bare bottom somehow helped discipline me.

Instead, it only shut me down. In addition to school, I didn't feel safe at home either. As a result, I never felt the sense of security that children need to experience to develop as individuals. Finally, I also struggled in school. In those days, they did not understand learning as a process. If you couldn't keep up, you were simply considered stupid or, as Sister Mary Annunciata called us, a 'moron'.

The painful combination of fear, low self-esteem, and self-doubt continued throughout grade school. I had a part-time job when I was 12 years old delivering the Providence Journal newspaper 6 nights a week to 70 families, in the rain, snow, sleet, and scorching summer days. Biking around, lugging 30 pounds of newspapers had its impact on my still developing body. I attended a Catholic HS seminary where I continued to struggle academically. Guitar masses had by then become popular and coincidentally, I had bought a guitar with my newspaper earnings and paid for guitar lessons – performing and playing music became a bit of an unexpected bright spot in my life.

I finally summoned up my courage and told my mother that I did not want to continue at the seminary (by now it was also clear to me that I liked girls and celibacy probably was not going to be my path). I enrolled in public High School and for the first time in my life, it felt like I could breathe. I started performing in the school's theatrical productions, and dating. I had a lead in the HS musical in my senior year and this opened an exciting possibility in my life - I would often go to New York City to see musicals and plays on Broadway and knew that someday I would live in NYC to pursue acting.

But all this positive development was suddenly interrupted when I received a draft number of six – indicating I would be drafted into active duty, perhaps to fight in Vietnam. This was the last year of the Vietnam War - I couldn't fathom being in combat, much less taking a life. Or losing mine. So, I was forced to sign up for a four-year stint in the US Air Force. I worked in what was then called Special Services and ran a recreation club on a Tactical Command Air Base for the airmen who lived there in the barracks. This was in the high desert of Southern Idaho 10 miles from any town.  It was isolated and populated with airmen from every state in the union. At the time, race relations with the Black and Hispanic population were brutal. Some of the airmen from the bigger inner cities like Detroit and New York City were steeped in lives where violence was just an unexceptional, everyday event.

This also meant they were angry and traumatized. Interacting with some of them was not always easy for me, to say the least. My old ghosts of feeling physically threatened came back in full force. I have a vivid memory of an airman named Dennis approaching me in the Tumbleweed Trail Recreation Center where I worked. There was no one else around – in a deep angry voice, he called out "Hey Delaney". I managed to reply, "Hey Dennis, I don't want any trouble", but the damage was done. I felt alone and intimidated once again. Making it worse, I had such low self-esteem that I never shared any of these experiences with anyone. If I got beaten up as a kid, I never told my mom or dad. In fact, I didn't say much to anyone. This continued on now, as I stuffed the fear and panic back down with all the rest of my childhood wounds.

It was all balled up inside me – what we now label trauma or traumatic stress. And when left unresolved creates negative effects on the body’s structure. Since our body and psyche are one, whatever is true in the body is also true intellectually and emotionally. All those experiences as a child and now as a man, had formed me emotionally and physically. My posture was apologetic, always bowed by the shame, fear, and anxiety I carried.

During my 4 years of service, I held fast to one beacon of hope - I wanted to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a professional acting academy in New York City. When I was honorably discharged in January of 1976, I auditioned and was accepted to the American Academy in their first year acting conservatory. I loved this kind of study - I was finally able to stand up and express myself in front of others. When I look back now, I see how all the trauma of my boyhood expressed itself in my body. But now, I was facing it out in the open, sometimes through imagining that I was another person, a character. I could feel myself slowly opening.

But I felt stuck when it came to my singing - I couldn't easily emit my voice like when I spoke.  I was blocked with fear, tight and guarded. I knew that my healing had to include freeing the painful associations that bound my voice. I wanted to learn to sing in my God-given voice, not the voice I had defaulted to, full of fear and inhibition. This became my life's Path. 

When I graduated from the Academy, I continued my studies in acting, dance classes, and singing lessons. Through my actor girlfriend, I was introduced to a woman who had sung at the Metropolitan Opera - but she also taught actors to sing in their authentic voice. When I auditioned for her, she stopped me mid-way into the song I was singing and said, “That’s not your voice!”. I knew that I had found my singing teacher and guide for this journey.

Margaret was demanding and she showed me how my body had become inflexible. Singing demands total body engagement and elasticity, in particular in the deepest layers of the myofascial system. Or what is being called our core - what I later learned is the survival muscle layer or initiatory musculature.  What I would discover through her unapologetic and demanding teaching ("You're not going deep enough in your gut - come on, get in there"), is that trauma causes these survival muscles (what I call in my book "Intrinsic Singing", "the singer's muscles") to go into flexion. Or what we call tightening or shortening. This flexion response is an automatic, or autonomic, survival response. It is the self-protective, sub-conscious, instinctive response to perceived threat.

But singing demands that these muscles be elastic and fully flexible over and over and over again for the rest of your life. The beautiful thing about “Mizzar” as she was called by her many students (“Ms. R,” for her married name of Riddleberger) was that although she had done a master’s at Columbia in what they called personality stress (today, traumatic stress) she addressed it through singing.

Working through trauma as a singer became all about self-observation. While Mizzar provided ongoing feedback of what she was seeing and hearing in real-time. She would punctuate lessons with tough-love gems like, "You are beginning to look apologetic again lately". Slowly, I began to see what she was seeing. And I began to see a through-thread in my life of music and self-expression - both had become a healing pathway for the unresolved, acquired fear that I was dragging along inside me, unbeknownst to me until now.

I was turned onto Rolfing by a fellow actor who offhandedly said to me one day, "Singers love Rolfing". I had also overheard my acting teacher Matt Chait speaking about the profound impact of his own Rolfing experience. So, when Tom mentioned Rolfing, I had the very strong impulse of 'yes'. He immediately called his friend Patrick Clough, who had trained directly with Ida Rolf. Patrick had me on the Rolfing table the next morning at 7:30 AM.

He had to use a very strong and persistent intention to get release in my body given the amount of fear and protection that I was unintentionally holding, built up over decades of trauma and pain. During my sixth Rolfing session, he was working on my right calf – unexpectedly I began to experience anger and frustration and then suddenly, I began to cry. But it was a different sort of cry. It was a joyous cry, a victory cry, a purging cry. I immediately knew a body-psyche release of a major event occurred.

When I was 17, I was an avid skier. I seemed to have an affinity for it and my friends excitedly encouraged me to help them learn. One afternoon I took a bad fall and broke three bones in my right leg. I was put into a local hospital with a full leg cast up to my right hip because my mom was in the hospital and my dad could not care for me and my other 7 siblings. I was immobilized, for months. Unconsciously, I felt like I’d let down my friends and placed all this unneeded pressure on my family.

And I had been holding onto that pain, shame, and fear ever since. And then, in one session, all that loneliness and sadness came out. It was life changing. The following week, I walked the few blocks from my Rolfing #7 session over to the Ansonia Hotel's Guild Rehearsal Studios for my singing voice lesson with my Mizzar.

We were working in the rehearsal studio that was the worst acoustically, replete with shag rugs. As I sat at the piano with Mizzar leading me through the scales, I was using the least amount of breath and getting the most reverberation in the studio. Virtuosic singing is all about reverberation, and vibration. Making that vibration set off everything around you like a bell ringing. This is the power of singing because our Spirit is finally visible, shining through.

I was not overworking as I always had, not struggling, not over-exerting, not feeling the bewilderment and embarrassment that I often had. The entire space was reverberating with what I have come to call 'sonic return' and Mizzar called the ‘boom in the room’. It is a reverberation, the result of the bone condition of the skeleton that recharges the singer’s nervous system as well as nurturing the listeners vibrationally.

That day, I discovered how a singing voice really works. The major shift from the previous week had put me in a whole new higher level of integration in my life and it was obvious these deep emotional and physical changes were connected to the work with Rolfer® Patrick Clough – it wasn't just magical thinking. And with Margaret's ongoing feedback from what she was hearing in that rehearsal studio, I discovered experientially that singing and speaking are essentially the same process. It was an incredible life-changing experience. I was able to move up and down the scale without any tension in my throat whatsoever, with complete ease and freedom. And there was no break in my voice that had always made me feel like I had a strait jacket on.  I could see that Mizzar was astonished by my achievement.

From this point forward in my singing, I was at another level. And when my progress would wain, Mizzar would insist I return for another Rolfing session. Without fail, it always freed my body of the tension that I had accumulated, which caused my core muscles to begin to be inflexible again and the body to shorten and tighten.

Six months later one Friday evening, at home in my NYC apartment, it suddenly struck me that I was going to learn Rolfing to work with singers. I had not entertained the thought until that moment, and I cried with joy. It all suddenly made sense; my work as an actor-singer, the sophisticated body-mind exercise training that I had been engaged in, my reading in metaphysics and physics related to the human body and psyche, and how fear inhibits us from being ourselves. And right on cue, a long-lost memory suddenly surfaced: I remembered working on my mother's feet when I was a kid because they hurt her so much. It gave her such relief - and I somehow knew what to do. Later, Rolfing instructor Michael Salveson would share with my wife, "David has the thing we can't teach".

I did my auditing training with Peter Melchior in Boulder. I ended up doing my practitioner Rolfing training with Michael Salveson in Berkeley, California. Michael was meticulous as well as demanding and this is exactly what I needed, much like my work with Mizzar. Very quickly, I realized that Dr. Rolf was helping people release unresolved trauma which was called 'stress' when she was teaching in the 60s and 70s. This was from the work of the endocrinologist Hans Selye. Unresolved stress, when accumulated beyond a certain threshold, will cause the body to tighten from the inside-out, because the core muscles are the survival muscles as well as respiratory in nature. Singing is all about dosing air in a masterful, dynamically relaxed, and efficient way.

I have always felt that Dr Rolf's work was inspired. Her grasp of modern non-linear science (the non-linear phase shift) plus her studies in metaphysics that brought a fuller perspective of the human body-mind; how to reorganize a body and free it in the gravitational field of Gravity, the true healer. She was amazing at being able to free people's bodies and achieve a global, unified balance that was lost to a degree in the course of living.

To a person, I can confidently say we all aspire to this level of skill that Ida demonstrated to us. I have been impressed at the level of teaching at the Institute, as well as the now-closed Guild of Structural Integration. This is both a science, as well an art, and the instructors that I had all embodied this artist-science sensibility and talent.

When I was Certified, Mizzar sent all her students to me both in New York City and the Washington, DC area. She had seen first-hand in me what the work could accomplish – and knew it could not only accelerate her students' vocal capabilities but more importantly their progression in freeing up their traumatic blockages in the goal of singing authentically.

I recall a fellow actor saying that he walked into the lobby of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC where I was standing, speaking with another actor. He had known me well in our acting training together. He said, based on the major shift he saw in my body, "Whatever he did, I am going to do"! He was one of my first Rolfing clients when I was certified.

I have since completed a master's in counseling psychology and became a licensed psychotherapist as well as studying with Arica Institute to understand more about trauma and its effect on our vulnerable human body-psyche. I realized that I needed to really go deeply into trauma resolution work, given my direct experience. It was simply fascinating to be of service to other humans who are carrying unresolved fear, which is what it actually is. And helping them to improve their day-to-day existence, since we only have our bodies as human beings, and without functioning effectively, our lives are limited. It is our vehicle to develop consciousness on behalf of our Planet Earth and all living beings. And from my point of view, we are all here simply to be in service of that higher ethic, in every and any way we can.