Legrand and Zetina Are Maestros of Massage Whom Talese Never Wrote About and Misha Can't Do Without

updated 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Constance Towers wrenched her back while doing a dance number in 1977's smash Broadway revival of The King and I, several chorus gypsies—perhaps fearing that her absence could send them back to unemployment—recommended that she see master masseur Robert Legrand. "The only thing that kept me in the show was Mr. Legrand," she allows respectfully. Now Towers, 47, visits Legrand almost every week, "as a preventative measure."

George de la Peña, who played the title role in the film Nijinsky and dances with the American Ballet Theatre, found similar salvation with Armando Zetina. "When I first started my career, I suffered a knee injury which would have incapacitated me completely," he explains. After trying osteopaths, chiropractors "and every kind of medical authority you can imagine," de la Peña went to Zetina. "Armando," says de la Peña "literally put me back on my feet."

Legrand, 53, and Zetina, 37, have never met, but they are the superstars of the estimated 200 practitioners of therapeutic massage in New York. They have poked, stroked and kneaded the likes of Jackie Onassis, Roy Scheider, Neil Simon and Bette Midler. (And, of course, they have nothing to do with the sleazy parlors that have given massage a bad name in Manhattan.) Zetina treats a seemingly disproportionate number of New York stars of another kind—its shrinks. "A psychiatrist is the target for a lot of hostility from his patients," he explains. "The stress builds up in his own body. Similarly," he adds, "actors and actresses develop the symptoms of the parts they're playing. Many times I've had a Clytemnestra on my table."

Still, the most grateful clients are the dancers—from Radio City Rockettes to classical greats like Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Patricia McBride and Natalia Makarova. "After racking my body for 31 years, I'd have had a chronic case of knotted muscles if I didn't go for a regular massage," says Judith Jamison, the Alvin Ailey wonder now warming up for her Broadway debut.

Legrand and Zetina have each evolved a highly individual style from two traditional massage schools. Legrand has his own version of Swedish massage, a system of stretching, stroking and pressing. Zetina opts for a blend that includes the Swedish method and the Japanese art of Shiatsu, in which strong finger pressure is used. Both also weave in variations of reflexology, another voguish Oriental technique concentrating on pressure points in the foot. Accomplishing through manipulation what might otherwise be achieved by exercise, all approaches accelerate circulation to bring fresh blood supply to injured parts of the body.

"Traditionally," claims Legrand, "you work from the extremities in toward the body. It's always the back which has the problem. People rarely hurt the front of the body. Tension settles in the shoulders, the back and sometimes the legs." Yet Zetina, working over Makarova, 39, attacks her strained neck immediately. "All the nerves are coming from the head through the spinal cord. So," he shrugs, "why not approach the center first?"

Except for a common lifelong interest in dance, the two massage maestros found their vocation by very different routes. The son of a Mexican cattle rancher, Zetina majored in psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico until he dropped out at 18 to study ballet at New York's Harkness School of Ballet. He danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, but finally quit at age 30 because of an injury. Apprenticing himself to masseur Alfred Kagan, who then counted Nureyev and Martha Graham among his customers, Zetina instantly built a reputation of his own on the ankle of American Ballet Theatre star Fernando Bujones. During rehearsals for the International Competition at Varna, Bulgaria, in 1974, the dancer suffered a severe sprain, and Zetina managed to bring the swelling down. Bujones, then only 19, went on to win the gold medal.

Legrand, whose father was a successful shoe manufacturer, grew up in Allentown, Pa., and attended Valley Forge Military Academy. He earned an MBA from the University of Chicago and worked briefly for the State Department in Japan and Korea, then spent seven years as a CPA for Price Waterhouse and Arthur Andersen & Co. In 1972 he enrolled in Manhattan's Swedish Institute School of Massage, and when society masseur Maurice Petit decided to return to his native France a year later, Legrand purchased his practice. With it came a client list that included dancers Edward Villella, Patricia McBride and Peter Martins as well as Jackie O and her sister, Lee Radziwill. All are charged $25 to $35 for a one-hour session, compared to Zetina's $40 per hour. Neither bachelor makes house calls.

For all their differences, both agree that virtuosos of the vertebrae are born, not trained. "It's an intuitive science in that you have to be able to feel what is wrong," explains Legrand. "There is no 'how-to.' Let me put it this way: Do you ask Nureyev how he moves his feet?"

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