The ballerina who became a family lawyer

The ballerina who became a family lawyer

09 November 2021 By Stefanie Costi
Tanya Musgrove

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya Musgrove spent her formative years training to be a professional ballet dancer until the dark and ugly side of this “beautiful” dance world reared its head, writes Stefanie Costi.

“I still remember my first ballet class. The teacher came up to me, looked me up and down and said, ‘you are perfect … for out there. In here, you need to lose 10 pounds’,” Ms Musgrove recalled.

After two years of training and dancing full-time, sometimes up to 12 hours a day, Ms Musgrove was burnt out, anxious, sick and extremely unhappy.

The life of a dancer was not the life she wanted to live, so she turned to the next best thing: law.

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Dancing through life

Ms Musgrove began training in ballet at the tender age of three. She loved dancing and still does to this day.

“I love the discipline and the challenge it presents. It is the perfect fusion of art, music, storytelling and athleticism, as well as the perfect escape. When you are at the barre, the outside world melts away, and nothing else matters,” Ms Musgrove shared. 

“It is a way of being wholly present and entirely focused on the task in front of you. I found this very comforting.”

But when it came time to move into a pre-professional ballet program with a professional ballet company, it became much more than the perfect escape. Reality set in, and it was nothing like Ms Musgrove had expected.

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“Initially, I thought becoming a professional dancer was a dream come true. I quickly realised that the ballet world had a dark and ugly side, something I had not been exposed to as a student,” Ms Musgrove recalled, still feeling the sense of disbelief.

“Although I had trained from a young age with this company in their junior school, being in the pre-professional program was clearly a different kettle of fish. Girls developed eating disorders and were praised for being ‘hard-working’ and ‘dedicated’.”

It took Ms Musgrove two years to accept that so much of what is considered talent in ballet comes down to physical attributes, usually outside of a dancer’s control. Ms Musgrove said that the teachers would often use terms like ‘long lines’ and ‘pleasing aesthetic’ as euphemisms.

“What they really meant is that you must be very skinny,” Ms Musgrove explained. “Curves ‘break the line’, and apparently, that is not acceptable.”

The culture within the professional ballet world was disheartening and, quite frankly, frightening.

So, Ms Musgrove took a leap of faith and made a change.

A pivot (turn) into law down under

Ms Musgrove had always been a good student. Achieving high grades had never been an issue for her, even with strict training schedules for ballet throughout high school. Discipline was more or less her middle name.

She began her journey outside of ballet at Queens University in Canada. “At that time, I was not sure yet if I would go into law,” Ms Musgrove said.

“Although, that was one of the possibilities I had considered. In Canada, before going to law school, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree first, so I chose classics [mostly Ancient Greek and Roman history, literature, archaeology] simply because I enjoyed the subjects and had always done well in them in high school.”

Around her second year of studies, Ms Musgrove was ready for a change and wanted to see more of the world she had not yet explored. When she realised that studying law abroad in Australia was on the cards, she leapt at the opportunity.

“The sunny warm weather and beaches really sealed the deal for me,” Ms Musgrove recalled, laughing. “So, I packed my bags and headed to Australia to start my legal career.”

Doing the family law fandango

Ms Musgrove made her way to the other side of the world to study law at Deakin University in Melbourne, graduating in 2008. She completed her legal traineeship at a small general practice firm with a focus on small business matters.

“We did a lot of commercial leases, buying and selling of businesses, registering companies, creating trusts, conveyancing and so on. Now and then, when one of our clients’ marriages broke down, we would help handle their divorce,” Ms Musgrove explained.

“To be honest, most other lawyers really did not like dealing with the family law stuff, but I found it more interesting than drafting leases or sale of business contracts, so I would always offer to run those matters.”

After a couple of years, Ms Musgrove realised that she was more interested in family law and once again packed her bags, this time to make her way to a family law firm in Perth. Though the vast difference between how this new firm that specialised in family law dealt with its cases compared to how her previous firm managed them was a bit of a shock to her system.

“All of our clients [at my previous firm] were commercially focussed people who often ran very successful businesses. They approached their divorce the same way they approached any other business transaction, and while it was obviously emotional, they rarely allowed emotions to cloud their judgement,” Ms Musgrove recalled.

“From a legal perspective, these were very easy cases to manage. But, the family law-specific firm was the first time I dealt with difficult and complex family law cases, including serious issues with domestic violence, drug abuse, mental health issues, child abduction and recovery orders. It was certainly a learning experience.”

But despite the initial shock, Ms Musgrove realised that she enjoyed helping people, and she was excellent when it came to supporting and managing the complex emotions involved in many family law matters.

Life had other plans

While Ms Musgrove continued working in family law until the birth of her child in 2014, her return to work did not go as planned.

“My son, Aleksander, was unfortunately born with Erb’s palsy, which occurs when the nerves in the shoulder are damaged during birth. He required physiotherapy, then eventually surgery and more physiotherapy as well as various other forms of therapy,” Ms Musgrove shared.

“He was also subsequently diagnosed with autism, which, of course, meant even more therapy. All of this left me unable to return to my previous position or even contemplate working as a lawyer because I needed to devote so much of my time to my child’s medical and therapy appointments.”

It was at this time that Ms Musgrove decided to train as a family dispute resolution practitioner. She recognised that as a family lawyer, she had plenty of exposure to family dispute resolution and felt that this could be a new career path that would allow her the flexibility she needed as a new mother of a child with special needs.

Working as a family dispute resolution practitioner was a natural fit for Ms Musgrove. She understood that most people going through separation and divorce would truly benefit from avoiding litigation and prefer resolving matters amicably.

“I am almost part mediator, part lawyer, part counsellor and part life coach. I listen to peoples’ problems. I help them think of solutions. I help them identify hurdles and help them figure out how those can be overcome,” Ms Musgrove explained.

“I believe we would benefit from moving away from the adversarial litigation model, which often does more harm than good.”

It seems fair to say that Ms Musgrove learned a great many lessons studying ballet that she can still utilise today.

“Ballet certainly taught me many good life skills, which I have applied in my legal practice,” said Ms Musgrove.

“For example, not giving up just because something is challenging, or being consistent with your work and always trying to do something to the best of your ability.”

In July 2017, Ms Musgrove started her own private practice – Family Dispute Resolution WA – which she still runs today.

And when she recovers from her knee surgery, you may just find her back in a dance class or modelling for various dancewear brands that embrace a strong focus on inclusivity and diversity in the dance world in her free time.

Simply speaking, Ms Musgrove wants to do her part to make the world around her just that little bit better.

Stefanie Costi is a junior lawyer and director of Costi Copywriting.

The ballerina who became a family lawyer
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