by Nora Edinger
Buoyed by a stressed-out culture and a growing acceptance of non-traditional health care, massage therapy is giving several area entrepreneurs a leg, or hand, up in the business world.
"You're not going to be a millionaire," said Nancy Castro, a licensed massage therapist who works primarily in Fairmont. "But it is very possible to make a living in a private practice of therapeutic massage -- a decent living."
In area phone books, there is an abundance of massage therapists, working everywhere from private offices to day spas to medical clinics to sports clubs.
"There are a tremendous number of people going back to school at this point," Castro said.
Such schooling, which regional therapists generally acquire in Pittsburgh, is a requirement in West Virginia. This is one of more than 20 states to require set education and licensure in order for massage therapists to work for pay.
Licensure has helped massage therapy become so mainstream that some physicians write prescriptions for it and some insurance companies cover treatments, Castro added.
"It's just healing. It just comes in different forms," said Colleen Dugan.
Dugan gave up a lucrative-but-stressful career in New Jersey's real estate market to open Bodyworks Massage Therapy in Elkins, where she charges $60 per hour, $35 per half hour, for deep-tissue massage, the going rate regionally.
After seven years in the business, her career is reaching a new level. She is moving into the new Chenoweth Creek Family Health Center of Elkins with psychotherapists and a family practitioner.
Dugan said one specific benefit of her career, one that will keep her in it, is flexibility.
"I'm not in it to make a bunch of money. ... If I decide I want a week off, I just don't schedule any appointments then," Dugan said.
Other benefits vary by therapist.
Castro likes the fact that massage can be combined with other interests for a specialized career. Some therapists work exclusively with clients who are infants, athletes, geriatric, pregnant, dental clients, entertainers, or, even, show horses.
"We can be everywhere and we are everywhere," Castro said.
That includes local hair salons. Sandy Dillon, owner of Sandy's Curl and Tan of Grafton, added massage therapy to her lineup of personal services about two months ago. She sees massage as a good way to head her Taylor County business, near the heavily touristed Tygart Lake State Park, toward day spa status.
For English professor Pam Bonasso, massage meant a more holistic career opportunity.
She currently has two full-time jobs: teaching English at the Gaston Caperton Center of Fairmont State College in Clarksburg and doing massage therapy at the Pete Dye Golf Club and with a chiropractor in Bridgeport. Her love of massage has become so great, she suspects massage will eventually win.
Disadvantages of the business tend to center on sheer physical limitations and public perception.
"We are limited literally by time," Castro said, commenting that most massage therapists see no more than 10 clients per working day. "There is also paperwork and a tremendous amount of laundry to do."
Lynn Davis, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Miracles in Bridgeport, said she sometimes wonders how long she will physically be able to do massages. Although her training helps her prevent injury to her own body, especially her hands and back, she realizes that an illness such as arthritis could quickly sideline her active participation.
On the public perception side, Davis said many people still look askance at therapists working on clients who are often covered with nothing but a sheet.
"You just keep it very professional," Davis said of overcoming her own nervousness at working in such a situation. "We do look at it as very medical."
Dugan said she just has a pat response to nay sayers.
"There have been a few instances when people say, 'Oh, you're a masseuse,' and I say, 'No, I'm a massage therapist, and the operative word is therapist,'" Dugan said. "It really helps to be affiliated with a doctor."
As massage therapy becomes more medically aligned, Davis said reaction is so positive she often experiences something many physicians do when meeting new people.
"They always tell you where it hurts," Davis said.
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.