I want to be a ballerina when I grow up

I want to be a ballerina when I grow up

I want to be a ballerina when I grow up

Don’t let your dreams die in grad school

March 10, 2020 | Alyssa R.


It was an average Wednesday. I rolled out of bed at 7:30AM, turned on Spotify’s “Monday Motivation” playlist and tried to let the cheerful pop seep into my bones.

Everything’s looking up now!

How could you not believe him when he sings so convincingly?

I swayed to the music as my routine swung me around my unusually large GRA apartment. Into the shower, out of the shower. Warm hug of the blow dryer, cold feet on the tile.

Today was a full-blown lab day. I needed to stay laser focused. Pun intended. There would be no class, no seminars, and no meetings to distract me throughout the day.

As I walked out of Maseeh Hall into the freshly fallen snow, I marveled at how quickly my body heated my coat. Just as the outdoors were becoming pleasant, though, I was already in MIT Lobby 7. Deep breath in. Here we go.

I plodded down the infinite corridor and straight to my lab.


  1. Bag down.
  2. Coat off.
  3. Powerful seed laser 1: heating up.
  4. Lasers 2-5: on.
  5. Power supplies 1-2: on.
  6. Chiller: on.
  7. Chilling water pipe valve: open.
  8. Frequencies of lasers 2-5: stabilized.
  9. Powerful laser amplifier: on.
  10. Data acquisition: on and running.

Nothing. No signal. I re-checked procedure numbers 1-10 and there was no culprit. After banging my head against the wall for a couple hours, I skyped my old postdoc who knew more about the system than I did. Several hours of work later, and none of his suggestions fixed the problem.

On hour nine of no-signal, I suddenly remembered I had something to do that evening. The undergraduates in Maseeh were going to see the Nutcracker. I was lucky enough to grab one of the free tickets for GRAs to come along. I turned off everything in lab and set my sights homeward to get ready.

I felt a pang of guilt as soon as I left the lab. Why couldn’t I just be more efficient? I berated myself when I realized I’d have nothing to show at group meeting the next day. Again.

I stayed trapped in this headspace as I slipped into my velvet skirt and heels. I hardly could appreciate the fact it was my first time getting dressed up in months, and I nearly forgot where I was going as I sat on the T and walked through the chilly, downtown-Boston evening with my fellow GRAs.

Just as I convinced myself that my experiment would never work, I stepped into the Boston Opera House. My mind went blank and then reset itself, overwhelmed with the sensory input.

The smell of Christmas trees and the bustling crowd instantly transported me back to my childhood. I spent ten years growing up with nothing in my life but school and dance. Many of those years included performances in the Nutcracker. As playful dance memories took control of my mind, lab ceased to exist.

Now in an entirely different world, I and my GRA friends wandered around the historic and opulent opera house taking pictures until the dimming lights ushered us to our seats. With a ten-dollar glass of champagne in my hand, I settled into the velvet chair and tried to prepare myself for the incoming rush of nostalgia.

As soon as the orchestra began playing the first few of Tchaikovsky’s notes, a small sob grew in my throat.

So silly!

I chuckled at how easily affected I was, but then embraced the feelings, leaning as far forward as my mezzanine seat would allow. As the party scene introduced my favorite character, Uncle Drosselmeier, I used my small opera glasses to discover the details of his magic tricks and crowd-pleasing.

The story continued in all the ways I remembered from when I was a kid. I held myself together until the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker danced their pas de deux, or step for two. Something about the depth of music and passionate control in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s movements made me feel like anything in the world was possible. I felt invincible.

Later that evening, when I returned to Maseeh, I could not get the romantic pas de deux out of my mind. I played it on loop as I got ready for bed.

Why did I stop taking ballet classes?

This was a rhetorical question, I knew. The culture of ballet is highly toxic for young women. In middle school, I moved on to sports that cared less about body shape. Even so, I missed the intricacy of the art form and the athleticism required to pull off the simplest of movements.

After listening to the pas de deux fifteen times that night, I looked up local ballet studios and emailed one of the instructors at Dance Complex in Central Square.

It’s been ten years since I’ve taken a ballet class—could I drop-in and see how it goes?

Fast forward to the following Saturday, and I’m at the barre in tights and ballet shoes, forcing my body through motions it hasn’t encountered since I was fourteen. I manage to make it through the barre work knowing the names of the movements and the typical patterns. In the centre, however, we quickly move on to fast combinations of leaps and spins I had never heard of.

At the end of the hour and a half class, I’m drenched in sweat, sore from head-to-toe, and smiling.

Although my body control was nowhere near the Sugar Plum Fairy’s, I felt powerful and graceful again. The romance and nostalgia might just be enough to get me working out more regularly in grad school. Like the Nutcracker, the class made me hopeful that anything was possible. Maybe it would even be possible to recover my signal in lab.

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