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On Stage at Meany, Backstage in the Big Apple

Story by
Nancy Joseph

During her years as a UW dance major, Shannon Narasimhan spent many hours performing on stage.  But when she toured with the acclaimed play War Horse last year, her role was behind the curtain. Narasimhan, who specializes in physical therapy for performers, tended to the aches and injuries of the production’s cast and crew.

“As a physical therapist with a dance background, I’m able to empathize with artists,” she says. “I know the stress that performing puts on the body.”

Shannon Narasimhan with cast

Shannon Narasimhan. second from left, backstage with cast members of Sleep No More in New York City.

Narasimhan (BA, Dance; BS, Biology, 2007) started dancing at age six, trying everything from ballet to jazz to modern. When she arrived at the UW, she put dance on the back burner to pursue a biology major. But when she enrolled in a modern dance class toward the end of her freshman year, she was hooked again.  “That class kind of blew my whole world up,” she recalls. “The teacher was amazing and the Dance Program was so welcoming.”

Narasimhan chose to double major in dance and biology, a symbiotic pairing that nevertheless posed some challenges.  “I was going, going, going every day from 8 a.m. to 10:30 at night,” she recalls. “Between classes, dance rehearsals, biology labs, studying, and performances, I didn’t have much time to party.  But I still had a good time because all of my friends were in the Dance Program.”

Curious about physical therapy as a potential career, Narasimhan began working part-time as an aide in a physical therapy practice during her junior year. “The more I saw how much time physical therapists spent with their patients, the more interested I became,” she says. Yet after graduating, she wasn’t ready to give up her dream of becoming a professional dancer. 

As a physical therapist with a dance background, I’m able to empathize with artists. I know the stress that performing puts on the body.

Narasimhan moved to New York City to pursue a dance career.  She danced on and off for three years, often for no pay. “It’s hard to be a dancer,” she says. “I found I was spending more time working random jobs so I could dance than actually dancing.”

Shannon Narasinham

Shannon Narasimhan

Eventutally Narasimhan revisited the idea of a physical therapy career. Dance professor Hannah Wiley, Floyd & Delores Jones Endowed Chair in the Arts, was behind her all the way. “Hannah had always been a great mentor for me, and she was kind of my springboard for realizing that it was okay to give up professional dance and go to graduate school.  She said, ‘I think you’d be great working with dancers, even if you’re not dancing.’”

Working toward a doctor of physical therapy degree at Columbia University, Narasimhan focused on the growing field of physical therapy for performers.  For her clinical rotation, she worked at Neuro Tour Physical Therapy, a firm that specializes in the performing arts, from Broadway shows to Beyoncé tours.  She has continued with Neuro Tour since graduating in 2012, first touring with War Horse—which traveled to 19 cities over nine months—and now serving as the physical therapist for Sleep No More, an interactive, immersive theatre production based in New York City.

Sleep No More includes more than three dozen actors and dancers who perform up to seven shows each week. The physically demanding production involves climbing many flights of stairs and lifting partners repeatedly, leading to high demand for Narasimhan’s services. She treats the performers' physical ailments but also recognizes that injuries have an emotional component.

Dance Performance

Shannon Narasimhan (far right) dancing with fellow students Rachel Randall (left) and Alice Gosti during a UW performance in 2006.

“A lot of my job is calming people down,” she explains. “Performers worry that an injury is going to take them out for weeks. Sometimes I have to tell them that if they perform that night, they may not only risk an injury that will put them out for a week, but possibly cause a permanent or chronic problem.  I have to be kind of a tough cookie with some of my patients. They can be high strung, and all they want to do is perform, so that emotional piece can be difficult. But it’s my job to know what’s safe for them—knowing their role, knowing their particular choreography, knowing who they’re partnering with—and all that knowing comes from my personal experience as a dancer.”

Narasimhan credits a UW undergraduate project with preparing her for her current job in ways she could not have imagined. With support from a Mary Gates Venture Scholarship, she and a classmate wrote, choreographed, and produced "Getting Undressed," a multidisciplinary show with a cast of musicians, dancers, and actors. “It took us six months, working at least two to three hours a night,” she recalls. “It was a huge learning process, but also a lot of fun. It taught me how to manage people and to see how different artists work—skills that continue to be helpful in my work.”

Although she would like to return to the West Coast someday, Narasimhan is thrilled with her current work.  “I took my time to figure out what I really wanted to do,” she says, “and I couldn’t be happier. My first job out of graduate school has been my dream job. I really believe it’s the perfect job for me.”