Month: July 2013

From Dancer to Doctor

Katie Pivarnik, Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies Recipient

Photo by Mike Tesi
Photo by Mike Tesi

Loving the physicality of my work as a dancer and becoming intimately acquainted with the muscles, tendons, and joints I used and abused, I never imagined exploring another profession that could be equally satisfying. Because of my intellectual curiosity, I enrolled in college courses throughout my dance career. In the LEAP Program, a dance-focused anatomy and kinesiology course at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries awakened me to the idea that through medicine I could further explore my interest in the human body.

In 2009, my husband, also a dancer, suffered a serious knee injury, and the trajectory of my life changed dramatically. His injury was incapacitating, and I instantly became his caregiver.

Volunteering at Overlook Medical Center in New Jersey, I met a man who was lamenting the fact his Parkinson’s symptoms were preventing him from playing tennis, his favorite activity. Drawing a parallel between this man’s love of tennis and my husband’s and my love of dance, I understood how heartbreaking it is to be thwarted from pursuing one’s passion, and I was hopeful the right combination of medications would help him back to the tennis court. I also met a woman who had been caring for her father-in-law, whose Parkinson’s was progressing rapidly. She admitted to feeling exhausted and helpless. Empathizing with her, I realized I felt the same fulfilling connection with this woman as I have felt with audiences. In this moment I was not just a dancer. I wanted to be a doctor.

Katie Pivarnik will begin studying at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in August 2013.
Katie will begin studying at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in August 2013.

With scholarships from the Caroline H. Newhouse Fund and the Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies at Career Transition For Dancers, I completed my prerequisite science courses through the rigorous Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at Columbia University, and starting in August, 2013, will begin medical school at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. I am grateful to CTFD for their financial support and for the guidance I have received through career transition workshops and online resources, all of which emphasize the amazing transferability of dancers’ wealth of knowledge and unique attributes.

The transition from dancer to doctor may seem dramatic. Yet, I find the professions quite similar.  Perfecting the art of ballet involves many of the same challenges as practicing the art of medicine, and both demand the same level of dedication and perseverance. Each one also provides the opportunity to impact people’s lives. It is my hope that through medical education I will be able to contribute to people’s health and well-being more profoundly than I ever could on stage.

Healing on Many Levels

Elana Altman, Sono Osato Scholarship Program for Graduate Studies Recipient

I found ballet at the age of two. My mother taught ceramics classes at the JCC, and the ballet studio down the hall was the perfect solution for her to satisfy her toddler’s endless energy. Since then, there wasn’t a moment when dance wasn’t part of my life.

Elana in Firebird, photo by Eric Tomasson
Elana in Firebird, photo by Eric Tomasson

With my love of discipline and structure, ballet classes at a neighborhood studio were not enough. At age nine, I joined the San Francisco Ballet School, and ballet became the most significant part of my extra-curricular activities, winning my devotion and skill over gymnastics, running club, and piano. I had found my true love. The hard work paid off when I was offered an apprenticeship with San Francisco Ballet, and soon after a Corps contract and a promotion to Soloist. So many times I would walk the halls of San Francisco Ballet remembering growing up there; the majority of the experiences that shaped who I am today happened within those walls. It kept me thankful; it kept me humble; it kept me tethered to the dreams of that scrawny, frizzy-haired pupil who still lived inside me.

To the best of my abilities and circumstances, I fulfilled those goals. I joyfully devoured each and every role that came my way. As the opportunities kept arising, I often had to pinch myself; in no way have I taken my fairytale for granted. I knew it would eventually have to end. As I approached my late 20s, the thoughts of “what’s next?” started eating away at me. And that’s also when the pain really began.

Elana as Myrtha in Giselle, photo by Eric Tomasson
Elana as Myrtha in Giselle, photo by Eric Tomasson

Injury. Every dancer’s battle. I won the war for as long as I could, never once missing a performance in all of my 12 professional years until I couldn’t fight any longer. This past August, I got the definitive MRI result: my hips were done with ballet. As long as I kept dancing, I was creating significant damage to those precious joints. The decision became clear to me, and I was actually relieved I did not have to choose to stop dancing; the choice was made for me. I would have never been able to simply walk away from ballet.

The past months I have been healing on many levels. In July, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, and I was determined to find a food studies graduate program to transition into my next passion. Good food and nutrition have been important parts of my life, and the more I read about the US Food System, the more I wanted to get involved to improve it. When I discovered the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement, it all clicked. Just as I once breathed ballet, I now breathe good, fair food. I want everyone to have access to food that is grown with sustainable practices and love, improving health and environmental consciousness.

Last month I applied to this University and was accepted, so now I’m picking up and moving to Italy for a year to immerse myself in the Slow Food manifesto. I’ll earn a Master’s in Food Culture and Communications and bring back time-tested wisdom and skill in order to make a difference here. Like dance, food is artistically stimulating to me, providing nourishment and a forum  of self-expression. This Master’s program will give me the tools to move forward with this next chapter of my life and find fulfillment and happiness in a new career, just as ballet has served my previous chapter.