Illusionist Kevin Spencer makes his living performing mystical feats, but his real talent lies in using paper clips, rubber bands and some rope to turn sober medical professionals into giddy, grinning kids.
Under his direction, physical and occupational therapists, graduate students and professors were crawling on the floor, contorting themselves while trying to master rope tricks and literally gasping with joy as they managed to link two colored paper clips with a flick of the wrist.
"I didn't expect this to be so much fun," said Marilyn Campbell, a University of Kentucky graduate student who took Spencer's seminar, The Healing of Magic, earlier this month. She was expecting more of a lecture than a hands-on tutorial in magic, she said.
But while fun was a motivator, Spencer's class had a serious message: Tricks can be magical for people rehabbing from injuries or coping with disabilities.
Campbell and about three dozen others joined in as Spencer taught 55 tricks of various levels of difficulty that can help with the same issues tackled in traditional therapy — balance, dexterity, sequencing, following directions, muscle and impulse control.
Spencer said the tricks are addicting and patients actually follow through with practice at home because it is fun.
"If you are a stroke patient and you know your grandkids are coming to visit, what do you want to do?" he said. "Do you want to say 'watch grandpa put pegs in the board' or 'watch grandpa do this magic trick.' "
Spencer was in Lexington to perform two full-production shows at the Opera House. While here, he taught two seminars in magic therapy.
Spencer always wanted to be a magician. He was the kid with the store-bought magic set that practiced for hours, he said. He had started his career when a car accident helped him find a way to use his passion to help others.
Spencer suffered a closed brain injury and a lower-spinal cord injury that required intensive rehabilitation.
"I know from a personal side how a long-term therapy can be," he said.
He found a way to use simple tricks to mimic more established therapy. His idea of pairing magic with healing soon caught on, and over 15 years he's honed his skills. In addition to traveling the country with his magic show, he's now an adjunct faculty at the University of Alabama.
His magic as healing program is approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association and was sponsored by UK College of Health Sciences Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program.
After introducing each new trick Spencer quizzed the group about the potential therapeutic benefits of each one and the list for each was long.
"It's the same thing we are having them do already," he said. But, he said, magic makes things fun.
Spencer, who has taken his seminar around the world, said he is also actively involved in research. Most recently he's been working with patients with autism.
He is determined to spread the message of magical healing and considers having his passion and profession converge a blessing.
"I'm the guy who is living out every little boy's dream," he said.