Had it not been for a simple twist of fate and a change of heart, Diana Atoian ’23 might be starring in The Nutcracker in her native Russia rather than having aspirations to be an economist — or even the next Janet Yellen — in the United States.
Atoian was born in Moscow, where she lived until her father, a physicist, transferred to America to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.
Not long after landing in her new homeland, Atoian’s mother enrolled her daughter in her first ballet class at Seiskaya Ballet Academy in St. James, New York, when she was only four years old.
Her path to Stony Brook University as an economics major and member of the Stony Brook Dance Team could easily have gone another way — Atoian was that talented at ballet.
“I immediately fell in love with it and stuck to it,” she recalled.
Director and ballet master Valia Seiskaya, a Russia-trained ballet dancer, created the school in 1975 to groom professional dancers. Many of her students have gone on to nationally and internationally known dance companies like American Ballet Theatre, Tulsa Ballet and Ballet West.
“Valia has many connections in the dance world and knows world-renowned dancers and teachers like Mikhail Baryshnikov,” said Atoian. “Besides seeking talent, she puts her efforts into students who have the drive, artistry and passion to achieve the perfection and beauty that ballet encapsulates.”
By age 11, Atoian was placed in a pre-professional class of much older and more experienced students. When she was 15, Seiskaya asked Atoian if she would accompany her to Athens, Greece, and enroll in the Hellas International Ballet Competition.
“I immediately accepted the offer as it was a very rare occurrence for students to be asked,” Atoian said. “All her past students who have gone to competition with her overseas have become the best of the best, so this was something I was really grateful for.”
Atoian trained and prepped her two variations — ballet solos from well-known performances that run between one and two minutes long — for four months, then went to Greece and trained with teachers there for about a month, competing against dancers from all over the world.
“I ended up getting third place overall and got to perform for the whole world to watch,” Atoian recalled. “Valia was very proud of me, and the two months that I spent with her in Greece was a true cultural awakening and something unforgettable.”
Atoian’s prize for placing so high was a one-year scholarship to attend the Vienna State Ballet in Vienna, Austria.
“A scholarship to such a prestigious school paved the way for my entire ballet career, so it was a matter of whether I really wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” she said.
Atoian, however, was enrolled in many AP classes in high school and getting exceptional grades. “That competition and the praise I got for my ability in ballet for 14 years wasn’t enough for me to turn away from pursuing my academic goals,” she said. “I didn’t want to pursue a short career doing what I love for myself when I can spend a majority of my life using my brains for something that seems more meaningful.”
Confident in her future path, she declined the prestigious scholarship and decided to pursue economics.
“I was trying to figure out what I would be passionate about that did not revolve around dance,” Atoian recalled. “By the spring semester of my senior year I started getting involved with my AP economics class a lot more because my teacher at Sachem High School East taught macro and micro with such passion and interest that his excitement for it made me interested. The application of math, which is something I was generally good at, to real world societal patterns and economic cycles made me that much more intrigued to pursue the study further.”
Now a sophomore, Atoian reflects on the life she had and nearly pursued but sometimes wonders what it would have been like had she accepted that scholarship and gone to Austria. Yet she has no regrets about the path she chose.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Atoian, who continues to teach and dance at the Seiskaya Academy. “Stony Brook has given me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and passion for economics even more, while allowing me to simultaneously broaden my dance horizon by being a part of the Stony Brook Dance Team. This team has taught me new styles of dance that are completely the opposite of ballet, making it uncharted territory, but I am completely in love with it.”
After graduation, Atoian plans to earn an MBA, then follow a career path that enables her to meld her passion for economics and business with dance.
“After my undergrad years and MBA I plan to make seed money working at a corporate job,” she said. “Hopefully I can branch out on my own and start my own dance studio, where I can teach as well as run the business, using both passions in the same profession.”
For Atoian, it’s all about the journey and the destination.
“I can’t wait to see where my new acquired path will take me,” she said.
— Glenn Jochum