MIDDLETOWN, Conn – In front of 500 Wesleyan University students, Dan LaRosa stood on a stage with a dozen volunteers from the crowd. One by one, he stroked the volunteers on their shoulders, puts his other hand on their heads, and whispered the word “sleep.”
The students’ heads dropped and each fell into a trance. What followed was a two-hour demonstration of the art of hypnosis, complete with a stand-up comedy routine by the self-proclaimed “Funniest Motivational Hypnotist.”
On the college circuit, hypnosis has become a lively business, and, even in these difficult economic times, LaRosa is doing well. At between $2000 and $3000 a performance, he is one of 100 or so hypnotists across the country that make their living on stage.
LaRosa’s journey from a Connecticut-born son of Italian immigrants to a master hypnotist was a long one. His first job was as an aide in the drug and alcohol unit of a psychiatric hospital. He quit and formed a band called “Coconuts,” which performed a blend of comedy music and song parodies. In 1980, at a nightclub in Virginia Beach, Va., LaRosa saw a hypnotist perform, and became so mesmerized he began looking for a mentor, eventually settling on an Indian hypnosis guru, Dr. Joseph Panoor.
After two years of intensive training, LaRosa launched his hypnosis career, working with private clients, focusing on smoking addictions, trauma and lack of confidence. But he missed performing, and the stage proved the perfect platform to combine his two passions — helping people and show business.
Since he started doing shows in 1986, LaRosa has performed more than 3,000 times, appearing in Mexico, Puerto Rico and in all but 10 states in the U.S. He dabbled in nightclubs and corporate conventions but soon found his niche — the college circuit. With a base list of more than 200 schools, he says his schedule is filled with up to 70 college shows a year. LaRosa performs across the country, but most of his gigs are confined to campuses in the New York and the New England area, near his home base of Middletown, Conn. He says he prefers the college scene because he finds young students the most exciting crowd and, often, the best candidates for hypnosis.
“They are more experimental,” he said. “They are willing to try more things.”
When he had them up on stage at Wesleyan, the students lost all their inhibitions. They performed like rock stars, they imagined they were flying in the air, they thought they were jockeys in a horse race. The burly LaRosa, 55, also got them to forget how to clap their hands, count to 10 and say their own names. Participants later said that his mere suggestion became a powerful guiding voice inside their heads.
At one point, LaRosa instructed a hypnotized woman to tighten all her muscles. She became so rigid that fellow volunteers placed her horizontally between two chairs, with her stiff body supported only by her head and feet. A few moments later, LaRosa said “normal,” and she collapsed like a folding chair.
With the crowd cheering and gasping with amazement, LaRosa tried to remind them of the force of his craft.
“Under hypnosis, the mind is like a laser instead of a light bulb,” he told them. “It is a powerful tool that can change your life.”
Students of Barnard College in New York City tried a lot of different things at a recent LaRosa show, such as dancing like Jamaicans and flirting with the crowd. Spectators and participants alike left with mixed reactions.
“It was fun and it felt good. I thought it was a really good experience,” said Lauren Belive, 19, a sophomore, who was one of the volunteers. A competitive swimmer, Belive said she thought hypnosis might improve her concentration during races.
Others, though, were not as convinced.
“If it really works it could be useful,” said Abby Alfred, 19, a sophomore majoring in psychology, who watched the show. “I’m a little skeptical though.”
Alfred said she believed a few of the people on stage were faking, though some of what she saw, like one of her friends acting as if she were Muhammad Ali, was “freaky.” She concluded: “I really don’t know what to think.”
The common mantra in the field is that “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis.” Yet, LaRosa asserts that certain people are more hypnotizable than others. The characteristics he looks for are imagination, creativity and intelligence. He says the most susceptible subjects are liberal arts students, especially music and arts majors.
“They are more open-minded,” he says, adding that more analytical people, such as math and engineering students, are less inclined to suggestion. “You won’t get hypnotized if you don’t want to get hypnotized,” he insists.
Some of those who easily succumbed were a male student who became sexually attracted to a broom and a female student who was aroused by LaRosa, after he convinced her that she was standing near Brad Pitt.
LaRosa warned after the show, though, that hypnosis should not be abused to “pick up girls”. He himself did not. When asked how he got together with his wife of seven years, LaRosa winked: “She’s the one who hypnotized me.”