Before a day of classes, professors across campus set up the rooms where they’ll be teaching—arranging the desks, organizing graded assignments to hand back and struggling with the overhead projector, which inevitably doesn't work.
Bob Brame has a different to-do list. As the instructor of Duke’s "Massage Therapy" course, he sets up tables for students to practice giving each other massages. He arranges sheets and blankets while making sure the massage oil is within reach.
While several classes involve professors imparting their wisdom to students via lectures and presentations, Brame’s course is hands-on and helps students gain stress management techniques and learn to appreciate their bodies.
“Most of what students do is science and math and computers and IT, so people aren’t [focused on] their bodies at all,” Brame said. “Hopefully this class brings more focus and attention to their bodies.”
Brame’s interest in massage therapy began after he had two back surgeries in the '90s and began visiting a specialist in Greensboro, who explained where Brame held tension in his body and how to relieve it.
He decided to take private lessons for massage instruction and then sat for the national exam to become certified. Afterwards, he used an empty space in a family-owned office building near East Campus to teach his own classes.
“When I started massage therapy, I realized how I had created my medical problems myself because I didn’t realize I was holding tension in that part of my body,” he said. “Now I’m more flexible than when I was 12.”
While teaching a different physical education class at Duke, Brame was encouraged by a colleague to bring his massage expertise to Duke. He wrote up a prospective syllabus for Al Buehler, chair of the physical education department at the time, and the class was born.
It’s now a very popular course in the department, with 18 of the 24 spots filled up. Even the class’s Friday afternoon time slot doesn't deter prospective participants. There's frequently a waitlist for the class before the semester starts, although some students drop the course later because of other commitments, Brame said.
Brame begins the course with a couple of introduction classes in which he walks students through the basics of massage therapy. Students learn to work with energy that radiates off the body.
“It’s probably new to most people, but there are energies off the physical body,” he said. “They are very obvious to me, so I try to educate and share that with students. When you touch somebody, you’re also touching the energies off the body.”
In subsequent classes, students partner up to locate body landmarks on each other and gradually begin giving head and neck massages. Brame eventually gets the massage tables out. Each week, they learn a technique to massage a new part of the body until they graduate to full-body massages.
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It sounds nice to receive a massage, but isn’t this awkward for students?
Brame recognizes that some undergraduates might feel uncomfortable with the notion of touching their classmates’ bodies. But he does his best to alleviate their worries.
He tries to get the students to be more comfortable with each other and explains in detail what they are going to do before they actually do it. In addition, massage partners change each class, so if you don't like who you’re paired with at first, you won't have to work with them for the entire semester.
Brame said that some students are uncomfortable working with someone of the opposite sex. He noted that there are issues involving clothing and being touched on different parts of the body. However, he makes sure to teach proper sheet draping techniques to avoid embarrassing flashes.
It’s a not a class for everyone, and Brame knows that. One student asked Brame if he could bring in someone to be his partner every class. When Brame said no, the student then wanted to have the same partner each week.
“I said, ‘it seems to me that you’re not ready for the class,’” he said. “If it’s not something people are comfortable with, perhaps they need to take the class at a different time.”
Some students decide they just can’t handle the commitment of being in class every week. Since students learn the massage techniques progressively, missing one session puts them behind for the next and their partner ends up receiving an inferior massage.
Senior Lucila Bloem was a member of the class during the Spring semester of her sophomore year and noted that she enrolled because she wanted to learn some techniques to relax.
"I’d never had a massage before that, so I’d always wanted to learn how to give a massage," she said. "I thought it’d be a nice way to end the week."
Although some students found massaging each other to be strange, Bloem said that she learned how to be more comfortable with touch and made friends in the class.
Senior Jake Herb, who took the class last semester, said he initially signed up because he wanted to learn more about the human body and thought it would help him as a pre-med student.
“I really did enjoy the class, it’s something I would recommend other people take,” he said. “It can take you out of your comfort zone. Not everyone wants to get undressed in their class.”
He noted that he liked changing partners each week because he got to work with different body types and people who had different taste in what kind of pressure they liked. It was fulfilling to note his progress each week and build skills to provide a service.
Plus, it’s a great conversation starter.
Brame’s course has attracted attention elsewhere on campus, especially for those students in need of a massage therapist.
“Some of the [residence assistants] have contacted me to see if students would come and do massages at some event that they do in the dorm,” he said. “Students from the class have gone to dorms and done chair massages.”
They’ve also participated in a stress management week at Duke and have given 15-minute chair massages to Pratt students at the school’s request.
Herb said that the class helped him in his work as an EMT. Last semester, he helped someone who had collapsed and used his massage therapy knowledge to assist.
“I was able to recognize landmarks and feel more comfortable supporting his head and neck,” he said. “It’s a familiarity and a confidence that comes from performing an action so many times.”
Brame explained that his ultimate goal is to help students find a way to relax and recognize where they hold tension in their bodies. Other benefits include learning how to appropriately touch someone else and how the body works.
“Many students tell me they have gotten a better body image of themselves,” he said. “There are many positive things besides massage therapy that students get from the class.”