Raising the Barre: Kimberly Stegmaier, MD

Kimberly Stegmaier, MD
Associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, vice chair of pediatric oncology research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and co-director of the Pediatric Hematologic Malignancy Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

In this edition, Kimberly Stegmaier, MD, discusses her passion for ballet.

What was your first experience with ballet?

I grew up in Long Island and my dad’s job as an architect brought him into Manhattan quite often, so, from a very young age, I was able to see American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet performances. Watching them, I thought, Wow, I want to do that! Being on stage looked like a lot of fun – you get to be a different character, whether it’s a snowflake or a fairy princess. And I was attracted to the tutus and tiaras.

When did you start dancing?

When I was around 5 years old, my mom enrolled me in a ballet class at a local studio. I enjoyed it but, because I was the youngest child in the class and I missed my mom, I cried all the time. I vividly remember telling myself when I got dropped off at the studio, I’m not going to cry this time. But then I’d miss her and the tears would start.

Eventually, we stopped going, and I switched to gymnastics when I was around 7 years old, and I didn’t cry! I started doing gymnastics more seriously and competed at the Junior Olympic level. I didn’t completely leave ballet behind, though; when I was about 8, I started doing ballet again to complement my gymnastics training.

Dr. Stegmaier performing in The Nutcracker.

At age 12, I started having increasing problems with gymnastics-related injuries and found myself drawn back to the performance aspect of being on stage. Eventually, I stopped gymnastics and transitioned into dancing ballet more seriously. I auditioned for The Nutcracker, was selected for a part, and then I quickly found myself dancing five days per week. I became completely captivated.

Throughout high school, I danced in a company called the New York Dance Theatre, where I received a Balanchine-style training and performed often. As I neared graduation, I had to decide if I was going to go to college or pursue ballet as a career. I was not willing to give up the academic part of my life to dance full time, and, as crazy as it sounds, age 13 was a little late to start ballet seriously.

Did you have to leave dance behind at college?

I looked for colleges that had strong academics and some access to ballet within the campus life. I went to Duke University, where there was a strong dance community and a terrific ballet teacher named M’Liss Dorrance. Throughout those four years, I danced with her company in Chapel Hill and participated in several performances on campus.

As graduation got closer and I was considering medical school, I had to ask myself again, Is this going to be it for dance?

How did you stay involved with the dance community once you started your medical career?

Although I had performed a lot as a child, the first time I danced professionally was in medical school! Between my third and fourth years of medical school, I did a Howard Hughes Fellowship and fell in love with the lab. It was the most important year of my academic training, because that exposure to laboratory research changed the direction of my career. I was doing serious science that year, but also performed with José Mateo’s Ballet Theater of Boston, which is the second largest company in the city.

We did about 50 performances of The Nutcracker, and I was in Cinderella and a series of neoclassical pieces that he choreographed. It was amazingly fun time.

How did you find the time for both interests?

I had more time back then – I didn’t have clinical work and I did not yet have a family of my own. My now-husband (then boyfriend) also understood my obsession with ballet and my need to perform, so I was lucky in that respect.

When I started pediatric residency and my pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship, though, the hours were grueling, so dance took a backseat. I still tried to go to ballet classes whenever I could.

When I finished my first year as a fellow, I had more time and started performing again. When I was in high school, I could never in a million years have predicted that I would still be performing, but I did for several years.

Dr. Stegmaier rehearsing with a partner.

Now that you run your own lab, do you practice ballet in your spare time?

I do, but it’s been several years since I’ve performed. I still go to the studio when I can, and I’m not the only researcher there. In Boston, there is a community of “dancing doctors.” I remember one dancer from Germany with whom I was doing a pas de deux; right before we went on stage, he said, “Kim, I want to talk to you about polymerase chain reaction.” He had a master’s degree in biology, so we would talk about science between rehearsals.

What performances are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my time with José Mateo’s company. We performed in a beautiful old theater in downtown Boston and I absolutely love The Nutcracker. There’s a holiday spirit around that piece, and I have such intense childhood memories of seeing it.

More recently, I worked with Liz Lapuh, a ballet teacher and choreographer at the Dance Complex in Cambridge. She loves to choreograph pas de deux pieces, and we were able to choreograph some original pieces with my dance partner. It was wonderful to be actively involved in that creative process.

Do your kids express any interest in following in your footsteps? (Pun intended.)

Full disclosure: I did not want either of my children to do gymnastics. But, when my son was in kindergarten, he went to a birthday party at a gymnastics school. The coach of the boy’s team was running the party and it quickly became clear that he was auditioning my son for the team! The coach came to me after the party and asked about bringing him on to the team, but I pushed it off for a while. My son, however, kept asking about it. So, we brought him to a gymnastics camp in the summer and that was it. He has been doing gymnastics ever since. He’s 13 now and a level 9 gymnast. He travels around the country for some of his meets, and just qualified for the 2019 Men’s Junior Olympics National Championships.

And with my daughter, I did what my mother did for me: We put her in ballet classes, but she said it was boring! She is exploring other dance styles and did Junior Olympics gymnastics. Her sports passion, however, is soccer. She plays for academy and travel teams in the Boston area.

Is there any overlap between the skills you use in dancing and those that you apply in your career?

Definitely! Thinking about pas de deux dances, it’s a partnership. To be successful, you have to work well with someone; if you’re trying to do a lift and you and your partner aren’t in sync, it’s not going to work. It’s the same if you’re working collaboratively in the lab.

I also think both medicine and ballet are highly disciplined. Both involve a lot of effort and diligent work toward an end goal – whether it’s a presentation or a performance. I enjoy that process, and there’s a magic that takes over when it all comes together. On the stage we’re working toward perfection, but in the lab that’s not exactly the endpoint. A different excitement takes over when we’re working doggedly on an experiment and then the data come back and the “answer” is revealed!