Philanthropic Therapy | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Philanthropic Therapy

Carmela Nielsen and her colleagues donate their time to get dancers back on their feet.



It’s early on a Saturday morning, and the antiseptic halls of Salt Lake Regional Medical Center seemingly echo with the silence of their near emptiness. Around the corner from the momentarily quiet emergency room, down a darkened corridor and through a solid double-wide door, sits physical therapist Carmela Nielsen, patiently awaiting another dancer in desperate need.

Nielsen took the instigating emergency call the night before while trying to enjoy a relaxing Friday evening at home after a long week working the proverbial trenches of the Sports Medicine Center of Utah. Joan Woodbury, artistic co-director of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, was on the other end of the line in pure panic mode. Having just learned of a back injury suffered by one of her core company members, Woodbury instinctively jumped into action: She dialed Nielsen’s home phone. Accustomed to such interruptions and nearly single-mindedly geared toward easing the suffering of Salt Lake’s dance community, Nielsen simply doled out some temporarily alleviating advice, then scheduled a time bright and early to meet the patient for some immediate physical therapy.

“The dancers just sort of started gradually gravitating toward her,” explains Woodbury. “One dancer went and Carmela simply gave the best advice and best therapy regime. Then another would go. Now she’s standard. Whenever somebody gets hurt, they automatically get asked, ‘Have you seen Carmela?’

Somewhat used to the customary praise, Nielsen quickly notes that she doesn’t go it alone. The entire staff of the clinic'especially physical therapist Gladys Ross and Sports Medicine Director Kevin Semans'donate countless hours of therapy and support all in the name of “giving something back.” The majority of their work on dancers is provided completely gratis. Nielsen’s modest explanation of how things came to be is a simple tale of volunteerism'the dance community demonstrated a need, and Nielsen and friends were happy to help.

“This is our contribution to the dance world,” says Nielsen. “It’s volunteering. We just do it because they need it, they need it badly. Obviously we’re not there for the money, but again, they need the help and we have the ability to help them, so there we are.”

But in a way, Nielsen and colleagues are involved precisely because of the money'just not in the manner you might think. It all started 15 years or so ago, when Ballet West was apparently suffering rising Worker Compensation costs because its dancers were constantly in need of medical care'an occupational hazard. After getting a serious threat of being cut off completely, Ballet West saw the physical therapy staff come to the rescue. Offering to treat most dancer ills that clearly do not require a doctor’s immediate care free of charge'sore muscles, strained joints, etc'they cut the company’s health-care costs dramatically. Nielsen and friends even put into practice going in-house to dance studios and conducting “Bumps & Bruises” clinics.

“We started with the clinics and then we started treating basic injuries, unless it was a major injury,” explains Nielsen. “Only if they had surgery or something really major, would we start billing. So, by this, we cut down their expenses significantly. Soon, we were treating all the dance companies, because they all needed every little bit of help they could get; dance companies are poor. So it grew and grew, and now we’re sort of taken advantage of. We even see a lot of the university dance students, but that’s the way it should be.

Although the therapists spend a good amount of their precious time focused on the dance community'Nielsen is even a member of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science'the Sports Center umbrella shelters numerous patients, including professional athletes like members of Real Salt Lake and the Utah Blaze arena football team. It is in between seeing all their other therapy patients and athletes in need that the staff squeezes in the many dancers looking for physical relief.

“It’s important that the dance companies have our home phone numbers and that we can almost always meet the dancers right away,” explains Nielsen. “Injuries need to be treated when they are still new, and we need to get those dancers back dancing immediately, especially with performances and all.

That explains why even though it’s her day off'the weekend'Nielsen is back in the office. While waiting for her patient, Nielsen sits virtually enveloped by decades of admiration and patient appreciation. On nearly every spare inch of office wall hang signed posters and autographed pictures of dancers and athletes. The many tokens of appreciation effectively turn up the decibels of the grateful absentee crowd, giving thanks for what really amounts to caregivers just doing their job.

That’s how a humble Nielsen insists on perceiving things, anyway. In contrast, just mention the Sports Medicine Center of Utah to any one of those many pictured patients and the flood gates of praise quickly open. This particular Saturday morning is a perfect case in point. It just so happens to be par for the course.