I was going to be a doctor
NEW YORK CITY, USA – I was born on the island of Jersey, which is a ‘Peculiar of the Crown’ – part of Great Britain but operates under its own ruling. My parents were born in England but worked very hard to be able to move to Jersey – knowing that it would be a wonderful place to bring up children. Both of my parents came from underprivileged backgrounds, and despite being incredibly hard working and intelligent, neither of had the opportunity to attend higher education. For this reason, they worked very hard for my sister and I – that we can attend a good school and have the opportunities they were denied.
At the young age of twelve, my father’s father died, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer, leaving him to provide and care for his family. My mother had an accident as a child and was confined to bed for most of her high school years. Because of this, they always worked hard for my sister and me to have the academic opportunity that they were denied. I was a straight A student and always enjoyed learning at school, but I was always very active and was part of the island netball, athletics and swimming teams, and practiced kung fu and sailing.
From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. Even then, I recognised that the most important thing in life is your health. If you have your health, you have everything. To be a physician is to mean something, to have a purpose in life. In my mind, there is no greater honour than the gift of being able to care for another human being at their time of needs.
My academic course load throughout high school was always aimed at this goal, and I believed that my future was set. I loved my science classes – especially biology – yet I also enjoyed my history, literature and classes in religion and ethics. I recognised that medicine is a field where you are never complacent, you can always strive to be better, to learn more, to push at the boundaries of science, and constantly test yourself. It is a life of learning and meaning, a profession that it more than just a job. It becomes a part of your identity.
Baffled between two careers
Then, at the age of fourteen I found another passion. To this day, I do not know where it came from suddenly, but I decided to start ballet classes. It started as another activity for me to do after school, but I suddenly fell in love with ballet in equal amounts as I had with science. A year later, I realised that ballet was something that I wanted to pursue professionally.
I felt torn between two career choices, both so incredibly different, but I was reluctant to sacrifice either one. Of course, becoming a professional ballerina was a completely unrealistic dream, I had only been dancing for a year, a forty-five minute ballet class twice a week, and I was planning to audition for vocational schools, competing against others who had been dancing since the age of three, and vocationally since the age of eleven. I was at a tremendous technical disadvantage. However, I was blessed to have wonderful teachers teaching on the island – Philippa Gilbert, Valerie Guy and Annette Perkins. To be honest, I think that even they thought I was crazy to decide at such a late age that it was something I wanted to do, but I had made up my mind and they supported me as I flew to England to attend an audition for the Royal Ballet School of London.
To this day, I do not know what Galiene Stock saw in me, but she offered me a place in their incoming year alongside eleven other girls from the Royal Ballet lower school, Australia, Japan, Thailand, France, Russia and the USA. I finished off my GCSE exams, and at the age of sixteen I packed my bags, left home and the life I was leading to move to London to become a professional ballerina. For me, each day of my three years at the Royal Ballet School was an honour. I worked extremely hard to catch up to the level of my peers others, something that would not have been possible without their support and the help of my teachers and family.
I am a professional ballerina
I realised that I was fortunate enough to have two passions in life, and the opportunity to do both. A ballet dancer’s career is very short, and I always knew that I would go to University when I retire, and my dream of becoming a doctor was always so close to my heart.
My first contract was an apprentice contract at Ballett Dortmund in Germany. It was a wonderful place for me to grow as an artist, and the ballet staff really pushed the apprentices of the company: giving us a lot of opportunities to perform, yet also guiding us as we began our professional careers.
While I was working in Copenhagen, Angel Corella, a Principle dancer from the American Ballet Theatre in New York, invited me to join his new company in Madrid, Spain. It was an incredible opportunity to be one of the founding dancers of a new company, and we premiered the ballet ‘La Bayadere’ in September 2008. I stayed with Angel’s company for two years but due to the company’s financial problems I decided to leave.
I went to perform ‘Swan Lake’ with Charles Jude’s company in Bordeaux, France, as a guest artist. From there, I went dancing with the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo. I feel incredibly grateful that I was able to have so many opportunities to travel, and to work with so many talented people. I had a wonderful twelve-year career, working with dancers of every nationality. I believe this was a huge aspect of my development as an artist, and as a person.
The city where anything is possible: New York
While working for the Norwegian National Ballet, I had a three-week holiday between productions, and so I came to visit New York.It was while I was taking a professional class at Steps on Broadway that I mentioned that I had always wanted to study medicine when I retired from the stage, but that it seemed very difficult to be able to go back to school as a mature student in the UK.
Nancy mentioned that the School of General Studies at Columbia University accepts non-traditional students and that she had known many ex-professional ballet dancers who had gone back to their academic studies through that program. As luck had it, when I went online to do some research, they had a tour of the campus the following day. Walking around the campus, I felt so much hope and inspiration. I had been so worried that I was running out of time to start studying again, but hearing stories of others who had returned to academia following a period away from school made me realise that my goal was attainable.
I returned to Oslo to dance Swan Lake and started preparing all my application materials. One of the requisites was the SAT exam, a US high school level exam that was very different from the GCSE and A-Level exams I had taken in Britain. While I was performing Swan Lake, I signed up to take the exam one Saturday morning at the University of Oslo. I had imagined that it was more of an intelligence test; I had no idea that I was supposed to study for it. I can remember vividly turning up at the University on the morning before two performances of Swan Lake to take the five hours long exam, and emerging, completely brain-dead, to run to the Opera House to warm up and get ready for the performances.
I can remember the moment when I got my acceptance e-mail for Columbia University, I think it was only then that I realised that this was it. I was given an incredible opportunity to follow my second dream; a second chance that so few people are ever fortunate enough to have. I think that I had applied mainly to see if I would be a candidate, and therefore, when they accepted me I realised that I suddenly had a huge decision to make.
My wonderful director, Espen Giljane, was incredibly supportive when I told him of my acceptance into Columbia and my dream to study medicine. He remarked how fortunate I am to have two passions in life, and the chance to pursue them both. My decision to retire and move across continents was made very quickly. And although it was a difficult decision to make, I was able to make it because I knew that I now had the tools I needed to pursue my second dream.
I will be a doctor – for real
To say that my first semester at Columbia University was daunting is an oversimplification. I had been out of school for twelve years and found myself amongst some of the most talented and intelligent students in the US. I had to teach myself how to study again, revise material and skills that I had learnt over a decade ago, at the same time coping with the rigorous syllabus of my classes, and maintaining a full-time schedule.
Despite the difficulties, I was so incredibly happy to have this opportunity to learn. I decided to be a neuroscience major following the neuro section of my second semester ‘Intro to Biology’ course. As I start my senior year at Columbia University I am applying for Medical Schools in the US and the UK. I am filled with excitement of the prospect of becoming a physician. Ballet will always have a special place in my heart. But I know that the experiences and tools I gained as a professional ballet dancer will be a tremendous advantage as I move forward in my journey to become a doctor.
“Bowing out of the world of ballet is probably one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever had to do.”
Bowing out of the world of ballet is probably one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever had to do. The feelings of loss are difficult to adequately express. Without wanting to be over dramatic, I would say that it is compared to the feeling as if you have left a little portion of your soul behind. Not only this art has been how you have defined yourself, but also the friendships that developed within a company are incredibly special.
And finding yourself somewhat separated from all that can leave you feeling lost and incredibly alone. Despite all this, retirement, no matter at what age, provides us with a second opportunity to find something else that we are able to put our full heart and soul into. Although our second career may never completely fill that space in our hearts, there are not many professions that allow you the opportunity to make such a radical shift so late in life.
With all that said, I feel extremely fortunate to be well on the way to the next challenge, and I promise that when I’m finally a doctor you’ve all got free medical care coming your way. Meanwhile, if anyone out there wants to help to bail me out of my massive student loan in, reach out to me. It would be much appreciated.
-Written by Carrie Walsh
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Photo credits: David Amzallag (Royal Danish Ballet) & Carrie Walsh