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.
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.
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.