When professional magician Kevin Spencer suffered head and spinal cord industries in a near-fatal car accident, he wondered if he would ever be able to perform again. Months of physical therapy showed him how hard it was to stay motivated to keep working to heal.
That was in 1988. Today, he’s taken that experience to build “Healing of Magic,” a program that uses magic tricks as a form of physical and psychosocial rehabilitation.
He was in Iowa City Thursday, working with University of Iowa physical therapy doctoral students. He showed them how to tie magical knots, make a wand float in the air and make rubber bands jump from finger to finger.
Each of these has implications for physical therapy, from hand strength and flexibility to core strength when picking up the rope to tie knots. But the wider implications are that it makes therapy fun, when it could be frustrating.
The lecture hall full of physical therapy students was loud with laughter Thursday as the students tried the different tricks and brainstormed how they could translate them to therapy. It was clear they were enjoying themselves. Each trick - seeing the initial illusion, learning its secret and then figuring out how to recreate the trick themselves - brought excitement and smiles.
“I love sitting back and watching you guys do these tricks. You laugh, you’re engaged,” Spencer told them. “Now put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s going through therapy.”
He gave the example of an elderly man he was working with who unmotivated to do therapy everyday. But he was motivated to learn magic tricks to impress his grandson.
Richard Shields, professor and chair of the UI’s department of physical therapy and rehabilitation sciences, attended the workshop and said he liked the techniques.
“This is powerful,” he said. “The interface between any treatment and being effective on humans is motivating them.”
Spencer founded the “Healing of Magic” program as well as another program, “Hocus Focus,” which integrates magic tricks into the classroom to motivate students, especially autistic students and students with learning and behavior disabilities.
Before spending time in Iowa City, where he is also working with UI physical therapy faculty, Spencer traveled to care and treatment centers in Spencer, Algona, Bancroft and Burt in Western Iowa.
He shared a story of a woman with Down syndrome he met this week.
“Look, I’m a magician!” she declared after masting one of the tricks. “I’m going to go on the road with you next week!”
Spencer and his wife Cindy Spencer also perform as professional magicians and will give a magic show, “Spencers: Theatre of Illusion,” at the Englert Theatre Sunday. Hancher is presenting the show.
Spencer said the woman so excited by her success she felt ready to join him onstage illustrates what makes combining magic with therapy work.
“There really is a holistic approach to treating a client,” he said. “The more the arts are taken out of our society, the more important it is to find ways to integrate them into the sciences.”