Ballet isn’t rocket science, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, either
By Rebecca Ritzel,
In the spring of 1983, Roger Plaut launched a petition drive of sorts at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He wasn’t lobbying for a political cause or for better cafeteria food. Plaut wanted to graduate early, and he needed teachers to sign on. He was 17 and eager to begin his career in New York as a professional ballet dancer.
“There was this one teacher,” Plaut recalls, “who refused to write me a letter. She said, ‘It is such a waste for a smart young man like you not to go to college.’ ”
In the end, her censure didn’t matter; enough teachers supported his career plan. But her disapproval stuck in the back of Plaut’s brain. He still remembers that conversation now, as a 46-year-old microbiologist who not only went to college, but earned a PhD. Before pursuing higher education, however, he enjoyed a 14-year career as a professional ballet dancer in New York, Zurich and Washington.
Plaut’s dancer-to-doctor success story started onstage and ends in a vaccine research lab at the Food and Drug Administration. And while the number of dancers becoming scientists isn’t exactly skyrocketing, it’s now entirely possible for ballerinas to become rocket scientists.
For decades, most dance companies have pushed dancers to keep performing as long as they are physically able. Discussing “What will we do next?” was taboo. Slowly, that attitude is changing, says Elizabeth LaClause, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Career Transition for Dancers. “We tell dancers, ‘Take those classes while you are still dancing,’ ” LaClause said.
The Washington area, saturated with dance schools, has produced several dancers who excelled in ballet before pursuing careers in the sciences. Their stories run counter to stereotypes of former dancers, perceptions reinforced by movies and television shows such as “Bunheads,” on which a former ballerina turned washed-up showgirl played by Sutton Foster runs a charming small-town dance studio with her neurotic mother-in-law.
These sorts of portrayals — built on the assumption that retired dancers can’t do more than teach ballet and Pilates — infuriate Aaron Thayer, a 29-year-old Stanford bioengineering major (and former student of Plaut’s) who grew up dancing in Reston.
“Don’t even get me started,” Thayer said. “I feel like I live my life against a stereotype. . . . We dancers are out there. But when we retire, not a lot of people know where we go.”
Where do they go? They go to Stanford. They go to medical school. Some even go on missions to outer space.
Pas de deux with microbiology
Plaut’s name probably sounds familiar to anyone who has followed dance in Washington for more than a few years. He grew up taking classes at Maryland Youth Ballet, spent four seasons with the Washington Ballet and has taught at nearly a dozen area dance programs, often alongside his wife, Mané Rebelo-Plaut. But far fewer people know about the vitally important day job Plaut began five years ago at age 41: regulating and researching vaccines for the FDA.
“People don’t really think about what dancers do when they stop dancing,” Plaut said. “At the average ballet performance, the people onstage are usually pretty young. . . . But the truth is, there are not many jobs out there in the dance world for former dancers. And those jobs that are out there often aren’t steady, don’t provide health care and don’t allow you to retire.”
Plaut started thinking about his post-ballet plans about 10 years into his professional career. After that premature graduation from Bethesda-Chevy Chase, he headed straight to New York to dance with the Joffrey. His seven years with the company were followed by a season in Switzerland with the Zurich Opera Ballet. When he came home to dance with the Washington Ballet, he started thinking about going to college, but kept his plans clandestine. The Washington Ballet’s executives at the time weren’t happy when Plaut said he’d be retiring early. At 32, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Maryland, and was mistaken for a parent during orientation. He had a full merit scholarship but no firm plans for a major, other than something in the sciences.
“I took chemistry, and that was good. I took biology, and that was very good,” Plaut said. “Then I took microbiology, and I just fell in love.”
Nine years after Plaut quit dancing full time, he graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimorewith a PhD in microbiology. He still teaches dance some evenings and on weekends, but he spends his days in front of a microscope at the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. (Although he retired from performing, you can watch Plaut dance Friday on PBS, when the network premieres “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance.” He’s featured in clips of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and the crowd-pleasing Prince medley “Billboards.”)
“Some people, right away, find out that they don’t like research. They step into a lab and the experiments don’t work, and they get really frustrated. For me, I just really liked the scientific method, right from the beginning,” Plaut said. “As a dancer . . . you have to repeat something over and over again and try to perfect it, and that’s very similar to what we do in a lab, where there is a lot of repetition, and a lot experimenting. When you try to figure out how to do a better pirouette, you’re experimenting.”
During the decade that she trained at Maryland Youth Ballet, Rebecca Yang, 46, often danced alongside Plaut. They were partners as young as age 10 and classmates at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and when it came time for them to graduate, it was Yang who rose to the top as valedictorian.
Yang’s parents had always been supportive of her dancing, but her father didn’t want her to forgo college. A family compromise let her defer admission to Princeton to train for a year at the Houston Ballet.
“All we did was dance, and I loved it,” Yang said. “But over time, I realized that I was bored out of my mind intellectually. And I realized that I didn’t want to be 30 years old and have nothing to do but be a ballet teacher.” So off to Princeton Yang went, vowing to quit dance and focus on earning a premed degree. That resolution lasted all of one semester. But instead of going back en pointe, Yang took up Broadway dance with Princeton’s famed Triangle Club music theatre troupe. She even served as dance captain in a show starring Brooke Shields.
“I had so much fun,” she said.
Heading into the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Yang figured she’d focus on orthopedic medicine and someday operate on dancers. In the end, ballet had an unexpected influence on which specialization she chose: She picked general surgery, because she loved the delicate precision.
“There is a part of surgery that is completely art,” Yang said. “When you are sewing a person closed, that is all about making it beautiful. And it’s sort of like dance in a way, because we are in the operating theater listening to music, and our focus is completely on the task at hand.”
As medical director of the Lahey Comprehensive Breast Health Center in Peabody, Mass., Yang’s specialty is the art of reconstructing women’s breasts. Earlier positions required her to take trauma calls, but specializing in cancer surgery, as grim a task as it may be, allowed her to take up dance again after an 11-year hiatus.
“I walked into the Jeannette Neill Dance Studio in Boston, and I realized I had found my home again,” Yang said. “I was so happy. But I couldn’t walk the next day. . . . Now it’s like my other life, where I’m completely anonymous. People don’t know I’m a doctor. I’m just one of the dancers.”
Dancing with the stars
Geophysicist Brett Denevi, 32, came to ballet a bit later than most children. She spent her elementary school years competing in gymnastics. Then, in the sixth grade, her gym deemed her too tall. “You have a ballet body,” she was told. Somewhat defiantly, she quit tumbling and started taking classes at Ballet Arts Minnesota (now Minnesota Dance Theatre). By high school, she was dancing 20 hours a week, sharing the barre with future Joffrey Ballet dancers and American Ballet Theatre soloist Simone Messmer.
“I never really thought I could become a professional dancer, because the other girls were so good,” Denevi said. But she had stars in her eyes, and a dream of someday working for NASA. At Northwestern University, Denevi took enough dance classes to qualify for a double major in dance and geology. When she traveled to France to study, Denevi persuaded the university to let her dance instead of taking her assigned class. “That was my study abroad: ballet in Paris.”
At the University of Hawaii, where she earned a PhD in geology and geophysics, Denevi danced almost every day. “I would be so frustrated, and so stressed out, and then I’d take class at lunchtime, in a studio with glass walls. It was almost like dancing outside. It was such a release.”
She kept dancing even after she got pregnant with her son, Jack, now 5. In 2010, she and her husband, Tim, moved to Silver Spring so Denevi could take a job as a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. She now spends much of her days analyzing data and images sent back to Earth by Messenger, the NASA spacecraft orbiting Mercury and mapping out features on the innermost planet. According to International Astronomical Union rules, all craters on Mercury must be named after famous figures in the arts who were famous at least half a century ago, and dead for at least three years. Yet as of 2010, not a single crater, out of hundreds, had been named in honor of a dancer or choreographer.
Denevi did something about that. There are now planetary pockmarks named after Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Marius Petipa. The Balanchine is her favorite, so named because the blue rays extending from the crater reminded her of the long, blue tutus in his classic ballet, “Serenade.”
When Aaron Thayer began dancing at age 10, he wasn’t thinking at all about a future career. All he could think about was next week’s swim meet. Only one kid on his team had a faster butterfly time, so Thayer asked him what he did to train.
“He said he took ballet classes, so I started taking ballet classes,” Thayer said. He can still remember visiting Maryland Youth Ballet’s studios, and jealously watching a class of boys clash swords to the “Mighty Mouse” theme song. His parents were sympathetic, but enrolled him in classes closer to home at Virginia’s Classical Ballet Theatre.
“After my first class, my mom remembers me saying that I loved it and I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” Thayer said. Like Plaut, one of his teachers, he graduated early from Reston’s South Lakes High School, and at age 17, moved to California to live with his father’s college roommate while he trained at the San Francisco Ballet School. As a student, he danced with the company in works by Jerome Robbins and Lar Lubovitch. At 19, he was hired by Cincinnati Ballet, and three years later, it was back to the Bay Area to spend five years at Smuin Ballet, a small company that focuses on touring contemporary works.
During most of his seasons with Smuin, Thayer was also taking classes at City College of San Francisco. His professors and his artistic director, Celia Fushille, were supportive and accommodating. Thayer remains especially grateful to his Calculus III professor, who handed him a textbook and told him to show up for the exams. “I did,” Thayer said, “And I got an A, although I’m not sure that’s normal City College policy.”
When he applied to Stanford, Thayer didn’t tell his colleagues at Smuin, not because he feared rocking the boat but because he feared he wouldn’t get in. He was accepted, and like Plaut, found himself needing to choose a major.
“I wanted to do something different,” Thayer said. “I didn’t want to do economics. I wanted a different way of thinking about how to do business. And I love bodies — I have a very specific context for the understanding of biology. So I chose bioengineering. I love it. It’s awesome.”
On campus, he works in a stem-cell research lab, specializing in muscle-cell development. For Thayer, there’s a clear connection between pursuing scientific breakthroughs and creating groundbreaking works of art.
“The job of both the research scientist and the choreographer is to say something new,” Thayer said. “Science, at the top, is trying to come up with new knowledge. . . . Dancers do that, too. But we do it mostly without words, and we do that in a community that needs a bigger infrastructure.”
Thayer isn’t sure of his career plans just yet, but he suspects that he will be working to expand the dance infrastructure in one way or another. He is on track to graduate from Stanford in May and is applying to MBA programs. If he ends up working in the biotech industry, he wants to serve on a dance company’s board, but he’s also interested in becoming an executive director, and working on the business side to challenge traditional models of how dance is created and presented.
“My mantra is, ‘It’s important to think outside the box, but once you identify the box, it’s important to go back in and make sure it works a little better,’ ” Thayer said. “Dancers and scientists are trying to do the same thing: hold up the flags for human experience and human knowledge. They are out there trying to discover something, and when they do, they are the vanguards, responsible for communicating whatever it is they are trying to say.”
He offered a more specific analogy: Leaving a good dance performance should be just like reading about a new discovery in a magazine. Or more specifically, the journal Science.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.