In the midst of training to be a classical ballet dancer, Beth Arciprete Comeau's life took an unusual pirouette.
She attended the University of Maryland, College Park, was admitted to its School of Medicine, married, had three daughters, earned a faculty position as assistant professor of pediatrics, and now works part time as an emergency room physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
"You have to follow your happiness," said Comeau, 38.
An early source of happiness for the Ellicott City resident was dance.
"I really liked the idea of ballet," she said. When she was 4, her parents enrolled her at Peters Studio of Dance in Montgomery County.
"Miss Mary Lou Peters just made it so much fun. She had this unconditional love for her students," Comeau said. "She also gave private lessons in the basement of her home, and that's where my dreams just expanded."
Comeau was determined to improve, and about the age of 12 she was ready to take the next step. Peters approached Comeau's mother, suggesting Comeau train at Maryland Youth Ballet.
"It is a rare teacher that can let go of a student," said Comeau. "You have to realize that this isn't about keeping the best student at your studio, but about a student's dreams."
Comeau briefly studied at a different studio, and then at the age of 13 went to Maryland Youth Ballet in Montgomery County to study under Hortensia Fonseca.
"That's where I met Julie," said Comeau, speaking of a younger Julie Kent, now a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
Comeau remembered her first "placement" class at Maryland Youth Ballet. "I looked like such a goober in that class," she said. At professional auditions or placement classes, instructors signal difficult "combinations" (series of steps) either verbally or with abbreviated hand motions just one time. The dancers then execute the steps from memory.
"I was so nervous," Comeau said. "Julie could tell - she stood in the back of the room and showed me the steps. She was not an egocentric person at all. She was the youngest [of the dancers] and clearly the best. But she was a friend to me that first day. She reached out and helped me."
When she graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring in 1986, Comeau was pursuing the ballet dream full-steam. She attended a summer program in Milwaukee that likely would have led to a position in the company. But surprisingly, she found herself unhappy.
"That summer was so telling," she said. "It hit me - I wasn't protected, going back to my home studio in the fall. This was it. I missed my family, and I think in a way I was scared not to go to college."
But Comeau said that it was difficult for her to accept that she was not happy, even though her parents had often told her she did not have to pursue dance as a profession.
"I think I felt I would be letting down my ballet teachers - that I needed to fulfill this destiny," she said.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a Julie Kent," said Comeau. "I was never going to be a principal [dancer], unless it was a small, small company."
Comeau had applied to the University of Maryland during her senior year because her parents had encouraged her to keep her options open in case she suffered an injury. During that summer in Milwaukee, Comeau's father kept on top of the process, sending her information and forms.
Comeau returned home and enrolled.
"I felt a sense of relief, a sense of freedom," she said.
Comeau still was involved in ballet - teaching a little and taking class twice a week - and studying to attain a business degree when she had another epiphany.
"I just didn't have the passion for it [business]," she said.
One night at dinner, her father suggested medicine. At first, Comeau was taken aback. But by the following morning, she had considered how energized she felt as a freshman teaching assistant in an elective called "personal and community health." She realized that in volunteer activities, she had always particularly loved working with children.
Comeau scheduled a meeting with her adviser and restructured her studies toward a career in medicine, with an eye on pediatrics.
"I channeled that focus I learned in ballet into academics," Comeau said. "I never worked so hard in my life. But I had such inner discipline. I was so focused, coming from my ballet background. And I think there was a maturity that you gain when you're involved in these sorts of activities."
Comeau credits her ballet training with her acceptance into medical school. One of Comeau's recommendations was from a ballet instructor at the University of Maryland.
"Of course you have to have the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] scores, good grades, but you need recommendations, excellent ones," Comeau said. "I think they [University of Maryland School of Medicine] look for somebody a little different - well-rounded. Not just 'my grandfather was a doctor, my father was a doctor.' In my class, there was a philosophy major, a music major."
Comeau graduated from medical school in 1995 and was awarded the coveted Clinician's Clinician Award by her fellow residents - denoting the physician to whom they would take their family members.
Comeau had her first child in her second year of residency at the University of Maryland and became pregnant with her second child at the end of her third, and final, year of residency. In 1998, she became a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In 2002, Comeau wanted to spend more time with her family. She left her faculty position to become a part-time emergency room physician.
"I found that balance that brings me happiness," she said. "I learned it's not all about being No. 1 - it's 'can you make a contribution?' I can contribute this way - be challenged and well-respected and have a sense of accomplishment in my job - but I can be a part of this time [with her daughters]. Your happiness comes from your passion, yes, but also from your relationships with people."
A few years ago, Comeau and her husband, Albert, went to see Kent perform in Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Backstage after the performance, Kent recognized Comeau and called out her name.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Comeau. "Here was that same warm-hearted person - the same girl I knew at 13."
From London, where she was performing with American Ballet Theatre, Kent wrote in an e-mail: "Not many students of classical arts go on to professional careers in that field. But what is gained by the entire experience will reward you throughout your life. The friendships, the love of an art, the ability to understand something about humanity on a different level all serve an important purpose. I am very proud of Beth. ... Her contributions to this world make a difference. What more could you ask?"
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