Ballerina to Brain Surgeon

Dr. Celina Crisman, MD is a former dancer, and currently a Neurosurgeon practicing in Worcester, MA. Growing up, Celina began her ballet training under Nan Keating at Children’s Ballet Workshop, and later went on to train at Boston Ballet progressing to the upper levels of the school. However, when it seemed like she wouldn’t make it professionally, Celina quickly pivoted her focus to academics which eventually led her to graduate from Columbia University / College of Physicians and Surgeons medical school in 2011. 

She attributes her success to her extreme commitment and determination which was cultivated during her ballet training years. Celina’s curiosity and desire for continued growth is palpable and seems another major contributing factor to her successful transition into Neurosurgery. Her message and story is truly inspirational and a great reminder to us all to keep learning throughout life.  

What drew you to ballet as a child? 

I had a jewelry box with a ballerina that I loved and I just thought it was beautiful. I wanted to also be that beautiful dancer on stage and try that out.  It was a combination of the costumes, the music, the dance… it just seemed really special. 

What memories stand out to you from your training years at Boston Ballet?

I remember having to go right after school, and carpooling. I also remember the intensity of auditions. Looking back, I think they kind of knew us and had decided ahead of time who was going to get what parts, but I remember trying really hard and being really smiley at all the auditions. I did a lot of auditions. I was like I’m going to nail this, I’m going to smile really big, and I’m going to be Clara. And that didn’t happen. That was really disappointing. I also remember having to dance really late at night and on saturdays. I don’t know how my parents did it. 

When did you decide you wanted to be a Neurosurgeon?

In my sophomore year of college. I was thinking about being a lawyer actually, and then I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about my arguments and reasoning and proof etc while writing papers and memos. And it was very annoying for everybody, most of all me! It would be weeks of constantly going over notes and memos and giving myself migraines. So I figured Neurosurgery would be a good job, where I can’t think about it for weeks because you can only operate on someone for so long. You have to stop. I thought neurosurgery seemed cool, I felt like the field would develop, so it would always be changing, and I could be participating in that change which would be fun. I liked the idea of having a finished product and being done. That really resonated with me. 

ABM: When you were dancing, did you ever think you’d end up taking the life path you did? 

No, I thought I’d be a professional dancer. I thought I would do that forever. But it’s like being a professional athlete, you’re either going to make it, or you’re not, and so I was like, ok it doesn’t sound like that’s happening, so let’s shift focus and be obsessed with something else which was hard because it had really been my identity. Ballet was such a huge part of my life and that’s what distinguished me, and I thought there was a huge component of failure in giving up that dream. 

ABM: How did you navigate through that time of transition? 

I just redirected my energy and focus to be obsessed with something else. I thought if I can’t be outstanding at this one thing, I needed to find something else at which to excel. When I was still dancing my freshman year of high school I think I had a 2.3 GPA or something really low, and I didn’t care. I was like I’m a ballerina, whatever, but then I went to having a 4.0 GPA the next year. I was like, if I’m not going to do ballet, I’m going to be really good at something else, and I shifted my focus to academics. 

ABM: What are some of the transferable skills you developed as a dancer that you continue to utilize in your current career? 

I would say definitely extreme commitment. I don’t feel like I was ever a casual dancer, I did it to do it at the upper echelons, and when I couldn’t at that level anymore, I just quit. So just the extreme commitment: practicing weekends, doing shows saturdays and sundays until late at night taught me how to be committed to something and not just work 9-5. Discipline is also really important. I think anyone that gets to a relatively professional level of ballet at a young age has to have discipline. Ballet really gave me discipline more than anything else. 

Another transferable skill is body awareness in a way; even though I don’t dance anymore, I still use my hands and feel like I have good coordination.

Also just making the transition and learning that I could excel at something else was valuable. Because if I need to, I know I could do that again. If I fell and broke my hand, I know I could use the same focus to excel at something else.

ABM: What do you enjoy most about being a Neurosurgeon? 

The fact that every case is a little different. I like the challenge. I don’t feel like I do something that is easily duplicated or learned. There is an experience component to it, and a small arts component to it- recognizing patterns, applying what I’ve learned from other cases to new cases- and doing something that is technically demanding. I enjoy that. 

ABM: What do you value most in your current life? 

I really like the feeling that I’m an expert at something and that I have tangible skills to offer, and that I’ve attained a level of expertise. 

ABM: What advice would you give to dancers who might be afraid to leave the ballet world?

I think you know when you’ll have to, or you don’t have to, like you don’t need to force yourself. And I would say just have confidence that whatever skills allowed you to be successful will come into play in whatever facet of life you choose to pursue next. Like, you woke up at 8am on Saturdays for dance, you can do it for something else, don’t worry about it! 

One book I would recommend is Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin. It’s really interesting, it follows musicians and lots of people who you would think must be naturally gifted, but it turns out they weren’t. It turns out it was more about how much, and how well they practiced. I thought it was really interesting that learning and dedication was what made the difference, there was no natural aptitude whatsoever. 

ABM : What do you like to do in your free time? 

I’m really into skiing and I’m taking up flying. So far I’ve flown solo, and I’m working on getting my license. I like doing new things and feeling like I’m developing competence. I really like the challenging scary part of it. Right now I’m also trying to learn about the stock market and more about computers and programming. 

ABM: Do you have any quotes or mottos you live by? 

I believe in not letting anything get in the way of my goals. Just being determined, I will stay up later until I’m done, and not really give-in per se. I will always do more, like one more ski run, or reading something over one more time… whatever it is. You make progress by small tiny movements, life is not a cram session. You have to do a little something every day and then eventually you’ll get there.