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Psychology plus ballet: Meet 'Dr. Dancer'

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
updated 7:05 AM EDT, Fri May 10, 2013
Atlanta Ballet psychologist, Nadine Kaslow also studies mental health issues, particularly relating to women.
Atlanta Ballet psychologist, Nadine Kaslow also studies mental health issues, particularly relating to women.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nadine Kaslow is the psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet and professor at Emory
  • She established a program for abused, suicidal African-American women called Nia
  • More than 280 publications have Kaslow's name on them

Atlanta (CNN) -- Nadine Kaslow sits with one slender ivory leg dangling, the other tucked neatly under her dress with the heel of her beige pump facing up.

These legs have supported her throughout her career as a dancer. But in her head, Kaslow struggled for years over whether to follow that path or her passion for psychology.

She eventually found a way to combine the two worlds, serving not only as a psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, but also becoming a powerful force for providing accessible mental health care for disadvantaged women.

"I always wore a ballerina around my neck," she said of the gold charm she's had since age 13, which she wore Wednesday in her office at Emory University School of Medicine. "But I never talked about going to ballet. I just didn't think I'd be taken seriously."

Now, as the new president-elect of the American Psychological Association, Kaslow doesn't worry about that anymore. Besides being an Emory professor and chief psychologist of Grady Health System, she is also the psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, where some students call her "Doctor Dancer."

Kaslow, 56, grew up in the Philadelphia area and started dancing when she was 3. She took classes in creative movement, which involved developing skills such as "prancing like a pony."

Little Nadine knew she wanted to do something more than what the system had set out for her. She asked her mother who was the head of the school, so she could ask to learn real dance with the big kids. The boss told her she needed to be 5, but this didn't deter her.

"I'd stand outside the class with the big kids and I would do it in the hallway," she said. Finally, when she was 4, because of her persistence, she was allowed to start real ballet classes with 5-year-olds.

Choosing psychology

In high school and early college, Kaslow danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet. But when she applied to college, she wrote that she wanted to be a psychologist. It's what her mother did, too, and she enjoyed reading books about psychological problems.

"I was one of those kids that, when other kids had problems, I was the one they'd come and talk to about their problems," she said. "I really wanted to help people but I really wanted to understand through the human mind, human behavior and human relationships."

Kaslow's mother Florence Kaslow also took on leadership roles in the American Psychological Association and worked to start up the Journal of Family Psychology, which the younger Kaslow edits today. The men in her family also shared the same career: Kaslow's brother and father worked together in financial planning for more than 20 years.

Kaslow's mother told the association's publication "Monitor" in 2001 her daughter "has been a source of extreme pride and joy for me, I love to hear how well she is doing and is received. Her work stands on its own."

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Kaslow studied depression in children and families; at the University of Houston, she focused on women and depression while getting her doctoral degree.

Nadine Kaslow
Nadine Kaslow

During graduate school, she continued taking ballet classes. In her head, it was a tug of war over whether she truly wanted a career in psychology or in dance. The director of the Houston Ballet then offered her a choice: She could have a position in the company, if she lost 15 pounds.

Perhaps because of the body-consciousness of ballet, Kaslow remembers with ease how much she weighed at various points in her life. As a Ph.D. student, she said, she was already 12 pounds thinner than she is right now. On her frame, not quite 5 feet tall, an additional 15-pound loss would be dramatic.

"I knew at that point that that was not a healthy lifestyle choice," she said. "I was old enough and I was out of the system enough that I was able to stop and say that was it. That was my defining moment."

She got her doctoral degree in 1983 and headed to the University of Wisconsin for her internship and postdoctoral fellowship training. Then, it was off to Yale University School of Medicine, where she was an assistant professor.

A patient that she had at this time made her once again confront her career choice. The same day Kaslow went for her licensing exam to become a psychologist, the patient took her own life.

Kaslow came to an important decision: "I would dedicate much of my life to understanding suicidal behavior in women. And in many ways it's because of her death that I ended up on that trajectory."

A compassionate healer

An opportunity at Emory caught Kaslow's eye in 1990. As part of the position, she would be providing mental health care to people with limited resources. The university's affiliation with the public Grady Health System was extremely appealing to her.

She got the job, which allowed her a combination of performing administrative work, teaching, supervising students, seeing patients and conducting research that could make a difference.

Grady Hospital is a Level 1 trauma center and burn center, and a "safety net" where police often bring people for mental health services. Kaslow is usually the first to jump in and conduct a debriefing with staff after traumatic incidents, said Michael Claeys, executive director at Grady Behavioral Health Services.

"People around the hospital call her when there are issues, and she's just so good at pulling people together, and helping them work through the difficult emotions of death and grieving, the variety of shocking events that can happen in an environment like Grady," he said.

Kaslow is a mentor to everyone, and will make time to help anyone, even students she barely knows, said Sarah Dunn, who was an intern and postdoctoral fellow under Kaslow and will soon begin working at a Grady-Emory psychiatric clinic. In her postdoctoral years, Dunn had health issues of her own and nearly dropped out of the program. Kaslow worked with her to make sure she stayed. A large painting of pink flowers on a blue background hangs in Kaslow's Emory office today, a thank-you gift painted by Dunn.

"With her kindness and flexibility, I was able to get through it," Dunn said.

Teaching and learning resilience

More than 280 publications have Kaslow's name on them, spanning topics such as family violence, depression and suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, therapy for couples and families and pediatric psychology. She's involved in many efforts toward addressing these issues. For instance, Kaslow will be leading a webcast on suicide prevention among children on May 15.

One of Kaslow's key accomplishments was founding the Grady Nia Project, a program in suicide and domestic violence prevention for African-American women. The program aims to empower women to lead lives without violence, and boost their self-esteem. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the program has touched the lives of about 1,000 women.

"These women have taught me so much about resilience and strength and hope," Kaslow said.

The program began with one sparsely attended support group. Now there are about 10 such groups, Kaslow said. In addition to being a research project, Nia offers a full range of services. Its advisory board members include a pastor, a police chief, and some of the women in the program. To some in this program, said Dunn, Kaslow is known as "Mother Nia" because she is "a mother to students and patients."

Nia has research funding, but also benefits from numerous community partnerships. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens and the Atlanta Symphony have both donated passes so that the women can be exposed to new cultural offerings.

Kaslow's eyes widen and gloss with emotion when she talks about her ultimate dream for these women.

"I have a wish that I could get the money to -- this makes me sad to think about it -- to build a really high-quality shelter for women and children that's really nice, that's personalized and yet large. There are so many people that come to us and when you ask them, 'What's the one thing I could do to make your life better?' They say: 'Have a safe place to live.' "

Her dedication to these women is such that she is on call 24-7 for them, carrying a pager in case someone has a crisis at any hour as long as she's in Atlanta. When she won the $25,000 Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award, she gave half of the money to Nia participants.

"She will take money out of her own pocket to help out these women," Dunn said. "They can't pay their electricity, they don't have money to get home to see their kids -- she will do whatever it takes."

At the ballet

About five years ago, Kaslow started ballet classes at Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. She met the center's director, Sharon Story, and the Atlanta Ballet's artistic director John McFall. It turned out, there was a way to reconcile her passion for ballet with her career in psychology.

Kaslow became the Atlanta Ballet's first resident psychologist, helping the students and professional dancers through wellness programming and psychotherapy.

"She keeps dancing and brings her knowledge and compassion to our dancers and students to pursue their lives and passions with strength, confidence, and healthy well beings," Story said in an e-mail. "Nadine is tiny in stature and a huge brilliant gem to all of us at Atlanta Ballet."

When Kaslow started working with dancers in her capacity as a psychologist, she thought eating disorders would be a huge problem. Instead, she's found other issues are more prevalent: Performance anxiety, balance between different activities and perfectionism.

Perfectionism in particular is a problem that Kaslow has struggled with herself, and something that she shares with some of the dancers she's seen in therapy.

"I really talk to the dancers about, how do you think about doing your best, and being good enough, and what a realistic and attainable goal is, and I try to do that for myself as well," she said.

The cultural norms of ballet are such that it's hard to know when a dancer truly has an eating disorder, she said.

"When I weighed about 22 pounds less than I do now, I was told I looked like a hippopotamus," she said. "The problem was that part of me believed them. But I look at myself now and I say, 'Well, I don't really look like a hippopotamus now, so I probably didn't look like a hippopotamus 20 pounds less than this.'"

Kaslow sees many connections between the study of the mind and of human relationships.

"As a scientifically-minded psychologist, I build upon many of the qualities that served me and others well in the dance world -- curiosity, persistence, patience, and a passion for the work," she said. "As an educator, I know that when I am teaching dance or psychology, it is essential that I provide a facilitating environment that nurtures creativity, self-expression, self-acceptance, and a dedication to doing one's best."

High recognition

These days, awards are raining on Kaslow. In April, she received the "Inspiring Mentor Award" at Grady Health Foundation's White Coat Grady Gala. She will be honored at this year's Emory University commencement ceremony with the 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor that the university gives.

Her advice to graduates, she said, would be: "Follow your passions and your dreams. I wish I had gotten that message sooner, and that I didn't feel like I had to choose (between dance and psychology) for so long."

"I think Nadine's biggest wish is that one day she will change the world," Dunn said. "But I'm not sure if she truly comprehends that she already has."

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