Today at Berkeley Lab

ETA’s Margaret Taylor Keeps Stress at Bay With Ballet

By Theresa Duque

Margaret Taylor in front of the FLEXLAB. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

By day, Margaret Taylor is an expert in clean energy innovation decision science for the Energy Technologies Area. But by night, she is a ballerina hard at work on refining her pliés and pas de deux technique.

Since her first ballet class at the age of four, she dreamed of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Throughout school, Taylor excelled in both academics and dance, passing her classes and winning dance awards, such as best dancer for both modern and jazz at the Ballet West company’s summer intensive in Snowmass, Colorado. While double majoring in environmental science and history at Columbia University, she managed to squeeze in ballet classes five days a week at nearby Barnard College and studios around New York, including the venerable David Howard dance studio. And when she wasn’t studying or rehearsing, she was performing. “I did a lot of gigs,” she said.

Despite her promising career in dance, she knew she would have to have a backup plan. “A professor in college who thought I had academic talent said to me, ‘You can’t do all of this. You have to make a choice,’” she recalled. “And I had always known that most dancers’ careers are over by the time they’re 30.”

After college, she chose the path of academics, and after completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, she, along with her husband, moved to Berkeley in 2001, where she became a tenure-track professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

Although teaching at the Goldman School was challenging and fulfilling, Taylor could never shake off her love for dancing ballet. She danced a bit while pregnant with her first child in 2003, but with a busy schedule of doing research, teaching, and raising young children, she had to put ballet on hold.

When her kids got older, and her career transitioned to a full-time appointment at the Lab in 2011, she thought she’d give ballet another chance. She dusted off her pointe shoes and started taking classes at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, in Oakland. Even though it had been about six years since she had been in full ballet shape, she thought, “I could get back into it with a lot of hard work.”

But her Achilles tendon started to hurt, and her favorite teacher left. She got rid of all her dance gear and started participating in adult sports like kickball and soccer, masters’ swimming, and running. Running, however, presented another challenge, especially in 2014, when she fell “pretty far from home” during a run. “My hip was on fire,” she said.

Months later, a physical therapist said he had no idea if she would ever be able to run again. “I was in tears. But I didn’t believe this guy was right. I decided to find a physical therapist who was a dancer, because I knew we’d be able to talk the same language,” Taylor said.

After a few fortuitous referrals, she ended up with a dancer-friendly physical therapist who, counter to Taylor’s first diagnosis, felt not only that she could run again but could also turn to ballet’s rigorous technical exercises as key to her recovery. Taylor started taking frequent ballet classes with Robert Greer at the Berkeley Ballet Theater, doctor’s orders. “The barre really helped with my hip. Pliés, tendus, developpés, and fondus are very strengthening” she said. “Who would have thought that I would ever have a medical reason to take ballet? And it’s much more affordable than out-of-pocket physical therapy.”

Today, more than two years after injuring her hip, and more than five years after putting her love of ballet to rest, Taylor has returned to dancing, in class and on stage. She will be performing in three pieces at Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Adult Division Spring Showcase, “Collage,” this Sunday, June 11, at 7 p.m. In two of them she will even be en pointe. “Not too bad for someone told she’d likely never run again!” she said.

“Martha Graham has a really great quote: ‘A dancer always dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.’ I may be in the master’s division of ballet now, but I feel reborn. I have less stress and more energy at work, and my memory and focus are better too,” Taylor said. “This has been such a great experience, sort of like my friends celebrating various midlife birthdays by signing up for 50-mile trail runs or other major endurance challenges. I figured, if they can do that, then why can’t I put on a pair of pointe shoes again?”

The Spring Showcase takes place at the Regents’ Theater at Holy Names College, 3500 Mountain Blvd., Oakland.

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