Tripp Hanson was living his dream.
After years of training and touring smaller stages, he'd finally made it to Broadway — and his first show, Crazy for You, was a smash hit. It won the 1992 Tony for Best Musical and provided Hanson with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as performing for Ginger Rogers at the Kennedy Center Honors.
"It was the most thrilling year of my life," says Hanson, a singer, dancer and actor. But then when the curtain fell and the tedium of the Broadway routine began to set in, he felt strangely unsatisfied.
"What I began to realize was it wasn't the perfect match for me," Hanson, 53, recalls. "I love the Broadway community. But there was a sinking, sick feeling that maybe I'm not going to spend the rest of my life doing what I set out with such gusto to do."
That feeling plagues many performers, especially as they age. Like professional athletes, dancers have finite career spans, and the physical and psychological demands of the profession often drive them to an early retirement. And, like so many highly motivated dreamers, Hanson had always been singularly focused on his journey to the top. He'd never considered what he would do after he got there.
Hanson performed on Broadway for another 10 years in shows such as Kiss Me Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie. But he was still searching for a second act that would provide him more long-term fulfillment. He taught acting classes, he took a fiction writing workshop — but nothing stuck. Frustrated, he sought solace in the advice of his longtime acting coach, Sande Shurin.
"She told me, ‘It's OK to live in the questions. It's OK to be uncomfortable where you are and to keep moving forward.' "
Then one day, what appeared to be an ordinary, if somewhat unusual, moment turned into a life-changing event. On a friend's recommendation, Tripp took his dog, Spanky, who was suffering from knee pain, to an acupuncturist.
"I was like, what are you talking about? They do it for dogs now?"
But the treatment worked wonders. Thoroughly impressed, Hanson decided to try it for a foot injury, aggravated from years of dancing.
"I felt this rush of energy, almost like a tiny little firecracker went off in my foot," Hanson says of his first experience under the needles. "I was like, ‘Wow, what was that?' "
As he began to look into traditional Chinese medicine, he was mesmerized. "My career as a performer gave me a whole vocabulary about not knowing, stepping into questions, not answers," he says. "And that's how Chinese medicine ultimately made sense to me, too. They're both worlds of moving energy." Before long, he was enrolled part time in an acupuncture school.
Performing in front crowds of thousands? That was nothing compared to the fear he felt upon going back to school. "I hadn't been with a big, fat textbook in years," he recalls. "I was scared I'd forgotten how to study." But he soon learned a reassuring truth about returning to school later in life: "You have a very different mind-set. You know what you're doing at school. I knew myself a whole lot better."
In 2007, Hanson graduated from Tri-State College of Acupuncture in Manhattan, but that was when the true test began. "You come out of school, and you're a beginning acupuncturist. You're not the be-all-end-all of alternative medicine." Facing school debt, Hanson had to act quickly to make ends meet. So he decided to tap into a group he considered his family — the Broadway community.
Hanson knew that Broadway performers were his ideal clientele: "Dancers get feet things — all that jumping and metal plates on the bottom of your shoes," he says. "It's like being a horse!" So he wrote letters, soliciting business from everyone he knew in the industry. "I said, ‘I'm one of you, but I'm also an acupuncturist.' " His letter-writing campaign worked: His clients saw dramatic results and began to refer their friends and fellow cast members.
Today, his practice, Healing Perspective, has its own Manhattan office — plus he does backstage "house calls" for a long list of loyal clients (such as Mama Mia! star Judy McLane). Hanson's practice was able to "spread its wings and take off" thanks to the Broadway community, and a lot of hard work. "You can't sit back and wait for your big break to come. You have to get out there and do it," he says. "The same thing I learned in show business I apply to my acupuncture business."
Hanson sees some more parallels between his two careers. "This medicine has just enough theater in it for me," he laughs. But he enjoys the daily rhythms of his life as an acupuncturist more than he enjoyed the repetitive routine of performing: "Now I have a different self, and the proportions feel more in alignment with my authentic nature." Still, the memory of his days on Broadway isn't gone, it's just, as he puts it, "a piece of a larger picture now."
Grateful for the support of acting coach Shurin and some of his other Broadway friends, Hanson has helpful advice for people looking to take the first steps towards reinvention: "Find a coach." Whether it's a friend, a family member or a therapist, Hanson advises, "You need to find somebody to bounce ideas off of and to get honest, tough feedback. If you really want to make a change, most of us can't do it on our own."