The performers of any Cirque du Soleil show wow audiences with flips, contortions and dancing.
Their feats of strength, flexibility and athleticism seem to defy the boundaries of what the human body can do.
Not surprisingly, the level of their performances translates into a need for massage therapy.
MASSAGE Magazine spoke with massage therapist Chris Melmoth, LMT, BCTMB, NREMT, who is employed at Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, Nevada, who shares what it’s like to work on these incredible athletes and artists.
MASSAGE Magazine: Chris, tell us about your massage background.
Chris Melmoth: In 2003, I graduated from the Shiatsu Massage School of California as a Shiatsu-Anma specialist and instructor. I moved to Las Vegas shortly after.
During my first five years in Vegas, I worked various day and resort spa jobs. In 2005, I began teaching massage therapy and CPR. In 2008, I became the department chair for the massage therapy program at the former Las Vegas College and began working for Cirque du Soleil.
In 2010, I left the school to focus my energy primarily on Cirque.
Today, I continue to spend most of my time working for Cirque du Soleil, but also have my own massage clinic set up inside a local gymnastics school where I offer a variety of private bodywork sessions and classes, and teach my own specialized form of shiatsu therapy called Chi Bodywork.
I also am a nationally certified EMT, and provide CPR training to other health care professionals.
MM: Tell us how you got involved with Cirque.
CM: I had been enamored by Cirque du Soleil ever since I saw Alegría in Santa Monica, California in 1994.
As a massage therapist just starting out, I moved to Las Vegas specifically to work with various types of performing artists, but after seeing the shows Kà and Delirium, I knew that I absolutely had to work for this company.
A couple of years after moving to Las Vegas, one of Cirque’s artistic directors was referred to me for massage therapy.
After working on her a few times, she asked me if I wanted to “audition” for the new Criss Angel Believe show they were opening.
Of course I did, and was hired to work on at that show twice a week.
Soon after, I was put on the schedule for Kà, Zumanity, and Mystère as well. Over the years, I’ve also worked on the shows O, The Beatles Love, Viva Elvis, Michael Jackson: One and Zarkana.
MM: What is it like working with Cirque?
CM: The Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas are called the resident shows, as opposed to the touring shows that travel around the world.
There currently are seven resident shows in Las Vegas. At one point or another, I have been on the permanent schedule for all of them.
For the past 10 years, I’ve worked an average of five nights [for] 20 hours per week.
Each show has a treatment clinic–called Performance Medicine, or P-Med–set up back stage.
Each show’s P-Med is run by two or three athletic trainers, also called athletic therapists, and each employs one to three massage therapists, pilates instructors and personal trainers.
Usually, there are three hi-lo treatment tables set up in the clinic, one for use by the massage therapist.
Most of the shows have around 80 performers who perform 10 shows per week (two shows per night). Each artist is offered two 20-minute massage treatments per week.
When I get to work each day, depending on the length of the shift, I have a list of between seven to 15 artists scheduled to see me. I begin working a few hours before the first show starts and continue working up until the beginning of the second show.
My clientele at Cirque includes acrobats, aerialists, martial artists, baton twirlers, jugglers, hula-hoopers, straps and silks artists, tramp and teeterboard artists, dancers and musicians, high-divers, synchronized swimmers, contortionists, trapeze artists, magicians, comedic actors … the list goes on and on.
I also coordinate the massage therapy team for the annual Run Away with Cirque du Soleil event, which is a charity 5K fun-run that takes place at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve.
There’s live Cirque entertainment, circus apparatuses for kids to experience, arts and crafts, and many of the artists are present there in costume to take pictures with the participants.]
I usually bring six to 10 massage therapists that provide post-event sports massage therapy to the runners. All proceeds support the Springs Preserve and Cirque du Soleil foundations.
Because of my affiliation with various massage schools in the area, I occasionally train student massage therapists to do the type of work I do at Cirque.
I bring groups of students back stage to work on the artists and staff. We call these events “massage-a-thons.” We set up 10 to 20 treatment tables in the show’s training room and provide 20-minute sessions to all employees.
The students are carefully monitored by myself, other instructors, and by the P-Med staff. I do this about once a year, or whenever I can find massage schools that are interested. It’s a rare educational opportunity for the students to work on such unique physiques, the artists always have a fun time, and management loves it because everybody gets taken care of.
After the event, the students are usually given seats to see the show.
I truly enjoy working for Cirque. The best parts are the positive working environment, the ability to truly use my soft tissue skills, and that there is always something new to learn from colleagues that I work with regularly.
MM: What are some of the most common issues you treat?
CM: I can get anything from “I slept wrong last night” to “I fell in the net wrong last night.” The simple fact that they do 10 shows per week, all at optimal performance levels, combined with demanding daily trainings, ends up keeping them on my table and keeping me very busy.
But I’d say about half of the work I do is related to chronic tension patterns relative to the job that the artists do every night.
So, same low-back or neck pain complaints that other massage therapists get, but mine are from hanging upside down in a harness all week, swinging from the right arm every night, or continually extending the back into unnatural positions.
The other half of my work is related to rehabilitation from an injury or surgery. I work in collaboration with the athletic trainers to determine the correct treatment approach for an artist needing rehab services.
MM: What are your most commonly used techniques?
CM: I deal with a wide variety of issues occurring in all areas of the body, so it helps to be familiar with the unique body types we have in the circus, as well as with what each artist does in the show in order to treat [them] properly.
I try to see each show regularly just to stay aware of the extremely high caliber of athleticism I am dealing with.
My assessment and soft tissue skills must be on point. I have to be able to very quickly assess each situation and plan the treatment.
The main techniques I use are a combination of myofascial and neuromuscular approaches, with active, passive and positional release techniques, and I regularly incorporate isometric contractions into each session.
I also add in cupping massage and instrument-assisted soft tissue manipulation, whenever appropriate.
MM: Why is it important for Cirque to offer massage therapy to its artists? (Visit Cirque’s YouTube channel to watch videos of the artists in action.)
CM: Most of the artists are career athletes that must be in top physical and mental condition in order to do their jobs.
Massage therapy has proven to be an integral part of their weekly maintenance. Massage therapists at Cirque not only provide all of the soothing, stimulating and relaxing massage that everybody loves, but they also provide much of the clinical soft tissue work that is a standard part of biomechanical rehabilitation.
In essence, massage therapy isn’t just a luxury for them; it’s a necessity.
MM: How has working with Cirque artists impacted your own massage abilities?
CM: Working for Cirque has taught me to establish fast and accurate assessments and effective techniques. Since I usually have only 20 minutes with each artist, I need to quickly assess the indications and contraindications, any relevance of referring out, and the most effective and efficient treatment approach.
It has given me a wider understanding of kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, and the ability to communicate with other healthcare professionals effectively.
I have learned many facets of sports medicine, such as how to assess and treat common sports injuries and basic athletic taping.
I have also learned different aspects of injury and surgery rehabilitation and when the use of electric modalities, such as electric stimulation and ultrasound, are appropriate.
Also, since our artists come from all over the world, there sometimes is a language barrier that can make communication difficult.
So, I have had to get creative with my nonverbal skills.
For example, one of the most common manual techniques that I use is active movement combined with compression—but without being able to communicate the active movement that I need them to do, I have been forced to discover passive and positional movements that are just as effective.
MM: What advice would you give massage therapists who may be interested in working for Cirque?
CM: You must enjoy working between the hours of 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. You need to be able to perform deep tissue sports massage therapy for three to four hours straight on sometimes very large, muscular athletes.
It helps to have a sufficient understanding of kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, and to be able to communicate with other health care professionals effectively.
I recommend perfecting your assessment and soft tissue skills and getting proficient in myofascial and neuromuscular work and active, passive and positional release techniques, and being able to incorporate isometric contractions into your sessions.
I know its taboo these days to use the word “fix” in massage therapy, but the reality is that if you aren’t able to “fix” them, they are not going to keep signing up with you, so it’s important to be able to focus intently on the artist in front of you and give your all.
About the Author
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, and her articles include “Software Engineer Turned MT Shares the Secrets of Corporate Massage Success,” and “Support Your Clients Following Disastrous Events.”
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