Mark E. Hunter-Hall, MSPT, CSCS, a physical therapist with NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, was once a professional dancer who spent five years as a Broadway cast member in Cats. Here, Hunter-Hall talks about how his career in dance informs his longtime physical therapy work with performers in Hamilton and Wicked.
Dance World Experience
All our therapists at Harkness have been in the dance world in one way or another. I moved to New York after getting a bachelor’s in music and vocal performance from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s in dance from Point Park University. My first real job was dancing in the national tour of Oklahoma! (Fun fact: another dancer from that ensemble is Marshall Hagins, PhD, mentor and educator in the Postgraduate Performing Arts Physical Therapy Fellowship Program offered through NYU Grossman School of Medicine.)
Then, I got my big break in Cats as an understudy for eight roles, including Munkustrap, Rum Tum Tugger, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat. Back then, we didn’t have physical therapists on-site. I’d get out of bed in the morning and not be able to walk to the bathroom.
Finding Physical Therapy
While performing the “Jellicle Ball” number in the show, I dislocated my knee and crawled offstage—in character, of course. During rehab for a torn ACL, I saw the benefits of physical therapy, which piqued my interest in it as a second career. It took three years of classes while I was dancing. Following Cats, I was performing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and unfortunately my knee gave out again. I like to joke that Andrew Lloyd Webber ended my dancing career!
But actually, he made my career, because that’s when I decided to pursue physical therapy full-time. I got my master’s degree from Northwestern University Medical School and joined NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries soon after. I also returned to the Broadway company of Cats, but this time as their physical therapist. That was 24 years ago.
Decades with Wicked and Hamilton
Harkness has grown a lot in 3 decades, and now has a 30-person staff, including 11 physical therapists and 5 athletic trainers, who work with performers in shows across Broadway and in companies such as Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ballet Hispánico, and Mark Morris Dance Group. In addition to staffing our full-time physical therapy clinic, our physical and athletic trainers provide free injury prevention assessments and teach educational workshops to the dance community. The evening and weekend hours they put in backstage show how dedicated they are to the center’s mission and to this population.
I’ve been with Wicked since day one, in 2003. That’s 20 years in the same room off the rehearsal studio! As physical therapy supervisor, I also see patients daily at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries—Physical Therapy Clinic. Later in the day I go to Wicked or Hamilton. Before the show I’ll see patients over 2.5 hours—performers, management, crew, or musicians—in 20-minute slots.
People come in with pain from the repetitive stress of doing eight shows a week, and we try to nip it in the bud—it’s mainly preventive care and triage for referral when we see something more serious. We routinely do manual therapy, mobilizations, and soft tissue work, and then prescribe therapeutic exercises and education. A Harkness staff member is on-site three to four days a week for most shows, and facilitates communication with NYU Langone’s dance medicine physicians: Donald J. Rose, MD, Lauren E. Borowski, MD, Julia L. Iafrate, DO, Tracy Espiritu McKay, DO, and David S. Weiss, MD, who is the supervising medical director for Wicked and Hamilton.
It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. You work with people in the clinic, then you see what they accomplish onstage. I remember how it felt to perform, and watching them, it’s fulfilling to know we’ve helped contribute to their success.