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Teaching massage techniques

Part of the classes as the Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy students must attach muscles to a skeleton to learn about them like the one instructor Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell has pieced together as a model for the students. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 5
Alexis Deal, right, massages Khiree Held on the table as Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell and Lori Jones (purple shirt) massage Sarah Kanz while Suzette Black, back, massages Olawa Rae-Bruhjell on the third table at Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 5
Olawa Rae-Bruhjell, top right, and Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell, top left, instruct their students Suzette Black, from right, Lori Jones, Khiree Held, Sarah Kanz and Alexis Deal at Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 5
Alexis Deal, left, and Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell, right, massage Khiree Held on the table while Lori Jones (purple shirt) massages Sarah Kanz and Suzette Black, back, massages Olawa Rae-Bruhjell on the third table at Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 5
Olawa Rae-Bruhjell, top left, and Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell, top right, instruct their students Suzette Black, from left, Lori Jones, Khiree Held, Sarah Kanz and Alexis Deal at Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)5 / 5

For the last seven years, one of South Dakota's few massage schools has been a best kept secret in Mitchell.

Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy has churned out many of the city's massage therapists currently in practice.

Sisters Olawa and Mele-Ann Rae-Bruhjell own and operate the school. Both are certified therapists and instructors, but Mele-Ann is the lead instructor while Olawa also teaches and handles the administrative side. They recently moved the school from Miller Avenue to Fourth Avenue in the former U.S. Post Office building across from Wells Fargo.

In 2011, the sisters relocated the school from Hot Springs to Mitchell. Their mother, Molly Rae — also a massage therapist — founded the school in Hot Springs in 2000. Prior to her retirement in 2009, she worked hard to convince her daughters to become massage therapists in order to take over the school.

"Mom was very convincing and at the time we didn't realize that's what she was gearing us up for," Olawa said. "She wanted us to follow in her footsteps."

Both helped out in the classroom at Hot Springs prior to Rae's retirement. Having found a passion for the healing art of massage therapy, Olawa and Mele-Ann agreed it was time for them to take over.

"We banded together to take it a step further," Olawa said.

"We didn't want to just see it fade out," Mele-Ann said.

Mele-Ann already had a decade of massage therapy experience when the sisters took control of the school and Olawa had the business side down, having graduated with a business degree from Dakota Wesleyan University.

"It all has kind of fallen into place," Olawa said.

In their search for a more centralized location for the school, they met Bob and Pam Plastow who owned New Leaf Body Spa.

"It worked out perfectly for us to take over the spa," said Olawa, who manages the spa.

The school operated in a small building behind New Leaf, which provided onsite internship, networking and mentorship opportunities for students.

As class sizes began to outgrow the space at New Leaf, the sisters began the search for a new educational venue.

In 2017, they made the move across town to 117 E. Fourth Ave. They offer two nine-month-long sessions throughout the year, and depending on interest they incorporate more classes.

So far, the sisters boast more than 60 graduates, most of whom have stayed in South Dakota. "We have a high success rate with our graduates," Olawa said. "Of the national average for massage schools, only 60 to 70 percent make it to graduation. Of those, only 67 percent are able to pass their boards. We have an over 90 percent passing rate."

However, ensuring their students pass their boards isn't the sisters' main focus.

"We teach practical methods to ensure them a successful practice," Mele-Ann said. "We teach more chronic pain treatment work. We tailor the programs for teaching students how to customize a massage and meet clients' needs."

The Rae-Bruhjell sisters enjoy guiding students through their journeys into the massage field, especially teaching them centuries-old techniques.

Students first learn relaxation massage as a foundation, and quickly move into therapeutic techniques, such as deep tissue, lymphatic drainage, and neuromuscular. Coupled with that, Mele-Ann emphasizes clear patient-therapist communication to ensure proper response from clients.

Aside from learning how to care for clients, students also learn self-care.

"It's hard on the body," Mele-Ann said of performing massage. "We teach stretching to strengthen the body, doing tai chi, yoga, and learning about nutrition."

Students learn how to use their body weight to put less strain on their own bodies while also performing better massages.

A growth pattern

Until this year, the Rae-Bruhjell sisters had relied mostly on word of mouth to attract students.

But, as interest in the fast-growing profession has increased, the sisters decided to begin advertising, including a billboard west of Mitchell on Interstate 90.

"We're poising ourselves to branch out a little more and grow," Olawa said. "We want to improve the massage profession on a national level here."

Not only are they growing their student base, the sisters are also nationally certified to teach continuing education workshops for licensed massage therapists. Olawa said the state has 800 licensed therapists, each of whom is required to have eight hours of continuing education every two years.

"Many people come from out of state for our workshops," Olawa added.

The sisters hope their school continues to make an impact, not only to help students become successful therapists but to create public awareness of an alternative to prescription drugs.

Regular massage therapy can help boost the immune system, increase or enhance circulation, prevent injury and recover faster from injuries, to name a few benefits.

"It's also starting to be recognized as helping to treat a number of diseases," Mele-Ann said.

The opioid crisis weighs heavy on the Rae-Bruhjell sisters' minds. They don't deny that sometimes pills are needed to help relieve pain, especially after surgery or an injury.

"But if massage therapy were prescribed first, it could have saved a lot of people," Olawa said. Massage therapy isn't just a luxury any more, the sisters agree, but more of a necessity.

"It's important for health care needs. There are more and more benefits to receiving massage," Mele-Ann said.

Having settled in a more centralized location, The Springs Bath House School of Massage Therapy is more accessible for students and therapists across the state. And it has given the Rae-Bruhjell sisters the ability to better share their passion for one of the top 10 growing careers in South Dakota.

"We just love what we do, passing on healing arts to future therapists," Olawa said. "We love teaching and doing massage, and how our influence trickles down to our students."