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Pressing the Flesh

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Massage is not a luxury anymore,” says Dolores Cannella, placement director at the Swedish Institute, one of two accredited massage schools in the New York area. “It’s a necessity for all of us who are under some kind of strain. More people are realizing that, and more people are using massage to prevent illness or disease.” Cannella fields 300 calls a month from people in search of a therapist. There is, she adds, particular interest currently in sports, myofascial, and lymphatic-drainage massage, along with classic Swedish.

People can service their trapeziuses or rhomboids through traditional means -- a private practitioner -- or through a group practice; through the office of a chiropractor or physical therapist working with a massage therapist; or at health clubs and day spas like Elizabeth Arden, which has nearly doubled its massage staff from ten to nineteen and expanded its offerings to include Shiatsu (a form of Japanese finger-pressure therapy), Reiki (an ancient method said to free blocked energy), and craniosacral therapy (a light-touch technique that addresses the membranes of the central nervous system). There’s a two-week wait for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday appointments.

And less traditional massage venues are spreading like sciatica. The menu at Korean nail parlors frequently includes neck and shoulder rubs in five-minute increments for around a dollar a minute. Bloomingdale’s, in partnership with Healing Hands, is building a “wellness bar” in the store’s cosmetics section where in alternating seats customers will be able to get a chair massage and a little lecture about breathing techniques and the Healing Hands product line of oils, creams, and candles. The store has already set up massage chairs for various evening shopping events and procedures.

“The customers have really liked it,” says Anne Keating, Bloomingdale’s vice-president of public relations. “They’ll stand in line for ten or fifteen minutes to have it done and then say, ‘Oh, now I can shop more.’ I try to go twice a month myself,” she adds. “I thought about it as an extravagance until I saw the results.”

The massage explosion can be attributed partly to the growing population of tired, aging, not-quite-as-limber-as-they-once-were baby-boomers, partly to an increased awareness of the effects of stress and of the physiological benefits of pressing the flesh. “I think massage has come out of the closet,” says the Great American Body Rub’s Zanker. “It’s nice, it’s clean, people aren’t afraid of it. You’ve got them passing on the name of a massage therapist they way they did with shrinks in the old days.”

“As we moved into the nineties with the health-care crisis, people have been made more aware of how the health system works in this country, and that has made them more aware of the system’s deficiencies,” says Elliot Greene, a spokesman for the American Massage Therapy Association. “I think it’s tapped into a feeling of dissatisfaction with health care, particularly with its losing the dimension of the personal touch. This made people more open to alternative medicine, and massage therapy got a big boost from that interest in health alternatives.” What’s so convenient about this explanation is that it provides high moral ground for those who’ve been having massages for years -- simply because they feel good. But the observation is underscored by Oxford Health Care, a health-maintenance organization that has been a leader in covering alternative health-care practices like acupuncture and that covers 25 to 40 percent of the fee for in-plan massage therapists.

Van Morrison pours out of the radio as Carrie DeMers, a compact brunette with hands you suspect could easily break boards, applies lotion and elbow pressure to Alexander Alimanestianu, 38, the executive vice-president of Town Sports International, who’s been suffering for several months from tennis shoulder. While DeMers works on his back, 3-year-old Charlotte works on her father’s feet, and Charlotte’s mom, Sally Maca, works on getting the child out of the living room, DeMers’s usual area of operation, “because it generally has the space and the sound system.”

“I definitely think you’re loosening up,” she tells Alimanestianu as he relinquishes the portable massage table to his wife, a ritual performed increasingly around the city as harried couples seize on relaxation that can be ordered in.

“It took Alex three months before he’d see Carrie,” notes Maca. “Then he’d only see her for half an hour. Then he’d start to say, ‘When’s Carrie coming?’ Now he says, ‘I wish Carrie were coming tonight.’”

Though most massage therapists say their practice is pretty evenly divided between men and women, some of the initial resistance may be gender-related. “Women are more accustomed than men to being touched,” says Swedish-Shiatsu-Reiki therapist Chloe Maglietta, whose client pool consists largely of “folks on a spiritual path” and business executives. “I think men are afraid sometimes because their relationship to touch has generally been sexual or football.”

“I have a lot of women who tell me, ‘I would love my husband to come, but he would never do it,’ adds Upper East Side therapist Anat Raz. Paris Gordon has no truck with this attitude. “If, when I start to go out with someone, he says, ‘I wouldn’t have a massage; I don’t want anybody to touch my body,’ that tells me something about him,” she says. “I wonder how cuddly he can be.”

But it’s the cultural resistance -- massage is too self-indulgent, I don’t need it, I don’t like strange people touching me -- that practitioners would like laid to rest (along with the idea that there’s something seamy about massage, which is the main reason the Great American Back Rub isn’t called the Great American Massage, according to Zanker). “I can’t just go and book a massage, because I feel it’s decadent and I should be spending the money on my kids,” admits one Upper East Side art appraiser. “So I try and make up a reason to go. I say, ‘Gee, I hurt my back when I lifted a heavy box.’

“When I used to see a therapist, I would cheerily tell people where,” the art dealer adds. “But massage is different, because it isn’t like you have a problem and that’s why you’re going. You’re going because you want to be indulged.”

Bill Bellamy is having a little cavity anxiety, so he’s having a little massage. The aggressively cuddly actor and MTV V.J. is just now getting comfortable in the massage chair at the foot of the steps leading to dentist Marc Lowenberg’s examining rooms when massage therapist Michael Taylor Cameron is called upstairs to tend to a patient with taut nerves and bad gums. “I get anxious,” admits rug dealer Vivian Collins, opening wide as Cameron kneads her neck and shoulder.


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