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.


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