Best Of Tucson®

Sonata for Many Hands

Margaret Avery Moon, founder and director, Desert Institute of the Healing Art

Margaret Avery Moon, founder and director of Desert Institute of the Healing Arts, is a woman who knows what she wants to do and does it. She came to Tucson in 1981 from Northern California because she wanted to start a massage school, Sonoma was too pricey and she'd read in a Kiplinger Report that the Southwest was the coming scene for health and wellness.

Tucson was the first town she visited. She liked it--"I'd expected tumbleweeds blowing down the road"--and everything fell into place here almost immediately.

"Canyon Ranch was the very first place I dropped a résumé and they hired me. Then my realtor called with a line on a house. It turned out to be a block away from the Ranch."

She worked at the Ranch for the next five years, full-time at first. "It was an incredible place to hone my skills. I had my hands on 30 to 35 different bodies a week. You have that many people walk through the door, you see everything, and you have the opportunity to get really good really fast. Besides, I had a mortgage and car payment and a school to start, and I was at the bottom of the totem pole in the department. I needed to be good."

She started talking to the other therapists about the school she planned to start within five years, and word eventually got to Ranch founder Mel Zuckerman. He offered to cut Moon and her business partner, another Canyon Ranch therapist, a deal on rent for their start-up. Zuckerman had been worrying about where all the therapists for his booming resort were going to come from.

Within a year, she'd traveled around the country to look at schools, and had opened, on Ranch property, with six students.

Twenty years later, Desert Institute of the Healing Arts is one of the largest and most respected massage schools in the country, with four buildings--including the beautiful two-story main building on North Sixth Avenue (acquired in 1985)--and 175 to 185 students enrolled at any given time in its accredited, 1,000-hour massage and Shiatsu programs. About 30 percent of DIHA's students are from out of state, but there's still a strong local presence.

"The last few years, we've started seeing the children and nieces and nephews of former students coming through. Tucson's full of these multi-generational massage families--massage dynasties, I call them" says Moon, laughing.

"It turned out that my vision was part of a collective vision--I think it has to be that way for a thing like this to work. The community has to be ready. The first presentation I gave was jammed. People were seeking ways to relieve pain and discomfort, and to live long and well. It clicked."

Through the years, Moon has been a force in establishing standards in an exploding field, underwriting research into touch therapies and improving the quality and image of the profession. "There were so many misconceptions," she says. The general population perceived massage as an indulgence--not therapy.

"I got together with some other school owners who started about the same time I did and we set out to change the image, and the reality, of the profession."

She's held multiple offices in the national American Massage Therapy Association, served on the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and received the national AMTA's President's Award in 1996. She was named Tucson's Business Woman of the Year in 1998.

Her particular area of interest has been in establishing consistent, rigorous educational standards for massage therapists.

"Of course I want to prevent harm, but I define 'harm' very broadly. If, say, a fibromyalgia or arthritis patient tries massage and gets a practitioner who has no understanding of the condition, and that patient walks away after the treatment thinking, 'Well, that didn't help, either, so I guess I just have to live with this pain,' that's harm. If a therapist is working with chronic pain after a couple years of practice because of bad body mechanics, that's harm, too."

Her determination to raise the bar hasn't made her popular in every quarter. "I've definitely got the bruises to show for 20 years in this business," she says.

"My feeling is that people can go to a school where they feel great about themselves all the time and come out totally unprepared to make a living. They will have wasted their time and money, but they'll never blame the school--it was so nurturing. At Desert Institute, on the other hand, we've had some students leave mad--they resent having to take anatomy and physiology and pathology and take tests and be graded. All they think they should have to learn is apply lotion in a soothing manner. But then we've had them come by after a year or two and say, 'Thank you. You taught me what I need to know.'"

Curiously enough, Moon's vision of what massage education should be started in music school.

"My college degree--this was before I went to massage school--is in music," says Moon. "I played piano, mostly looking for something to teach; I've wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old. My teachers at Sonoma State were wonderful, and the education I got there was in many ways my model for a solid massage curriculum. You have to have discipline to study music. You learn theory, you practice constantly, and you learn to perform.

"When I work on someone's body, I'm performing. I can't feel my own touch, just as a musician can't hear exactly what the audience hears. Touch is really way of listening, a palpatory one.

"Developing a sense for what another person is feeling--that's something to learn."

Next CD: "I love music; I love musicians. I've started taking piano lessons again, and I particularly enjoy great piano and guitar performances. This morning on NPR I heard Doc Watson talking about how he played when he was just starting out. So now I've got to get the album--oh, I'm dating myself. The CD."

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