Post-Performance Careers for Dancers

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Post-Performance Career Professional

During my performance career, I was very eager to learn about the ins-and-out of the many functions of a world-class organization beyond my career in the studio and onstage. Many dancers choose to focus completely on performance aspects of their careers. But I always had great drive to gain as much information about as many different areas of our field as possible. During my time with Pacific Northwest Ballet, this drive led me to take multiple college courses in business and marketing, to seek election as a delegate for our dancer’s union (American Guild of Musical Artists – AGMA) to provide representation and protections for my colleagues, and to act as the dancer liaison for the organization’s young patrons/donor development program named Backstage Pass. All of these experiences were greatly beneficial following my time at PNB, when I managed my career for 4 years as a Principal Guest Artist freelancing around the country. It has been especially helpful as I have entered this new stage of my career as a choreographer, dance educator, and media personality.

While I have gained much from each of these positions, I found my time as the dancer liaison for Backstage Pass particularly insightful in learning the importance of educating audiences about our art form and sharing information with the most nonjudgmental approach. Between engaging young adult ballet patrons and experiencing conversations at events, I always seem to field the same questions over and over again. First and foremost, non-dancers are particularly intrigued by the fact that dancers will retire from their first career at such young ages. So, it isn’t shocking that almost every engaging conversation I’ve had with the general public includes the question, “How much time do you think you have left before you have to retire?” This simple response that I stole from our physical therapist when I danced with Houston Ballet always felt most fitting. “There is no timeline to a dance career.” Some people will nod their head and move on. But most will acknowledge my response and ask for actual numbers. After appeasing their curiosity with a generalized idea of prospective retirement ages of dancers, the next question they ask is always pretty representative of how our culture perceives dance and our need for surface information with little insight beyond a few talking points. I can’t tell you how many times I have answered the question, “So, when you retire, you choreograph and teach?” Now that I go back and read what I just wrote, I find it funny that this is exactly what I chose to do when I retired from the stage. This fact aside, much of society believes that there are only 2 options available to dancers after their young careers are cut short by physical injuries, emotional injuries, or the reality of aging out of the youthful population of dance companies. Well, I’m here today to change that perception. If you have always wondered about possible job options for dancers in their post-performance career, look no further! I have compiled an informative list for you below. Enjoy!

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Dance Educator – Since we already talked about this, why not start with the obvious and expected response. Many retired dancers choose to pass on their craft after they leave the stage. Whether this is seen as a second stage to their dance careers or it is used to field income while determining their next career path, it is a viable option for many who are hoping to remain in the field in some way. I will get more into this in a future post, but teaching is more challenging than one may think. Not every dancer will be a good teacher. And there is a difference between giving a class and teaching a class. Don’t be afraid to dive in and learn as you go. But being an effective, quality teacher take a lot more than having had a successful stage career.

Choreographer – Assuming that any former professional dancer can be a choreographer is a novice error, as choreographing dance is a complex activity. But if you have a knack for finding interesting music (and listening to it on repeat a million times), developing compelling movement, creating and solving complex patterns, improvisation, teaching, coaching, stage direction, and sharing your imagination on a public platform, this might be the career for you. I find that cultivating my choreographic career is just as challenging and complex as the preparation I put into auditioning for contracts with companies. There are exciting and great successes, as well as a ton of rejections and time put in. Be ready for the long haul and prepare yourself to cultivate other aspects of your career while you are gaining traction and interest in your work.

A taste of my choreography:

Ballet or Rehearsal Master/Mistress – Did you feel like you were always a leader in company rehearsals? Are you great at counting, retaining choreography, and helping the group of dancers around you adjust to material faster? Then, maybe you should consider transitioning your career into that of a ballet or rehearsal master/mistress. These former dancers are responsible for teaching company class, staging previously set works, assisting choreographers with new works, cleaning up choreography, and managing dancers. There are very few of these positions available with organizations, and these long-term positions usually go to former dancers familiar with the organization. This can make it very difficult to gain this type of position. But if you want to stay working in the studio and continue helping your fellow dancers, this is the job for you.

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Darla Hoover – Balanchine Repetiteur

Repetiteur/Stager – Acting as a repetiteur or stager is not an easy job to obtain. Former dancers (or, sometimes, working dancers) head around the world regularly to restage the works of choreographers (both living and dead), as a part of their jobs. It really is quite a niche that requires timing, luck, friendship, and/or Principal/Soloist status. Think of your favorite choreographers of today’s time (Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian). Imagine that 5 of their works are being staged at company’s around the world at any given time. These dance makers clearly can’t be in all 5 places at once. So, they will hire repetiteurs (also commonly called stagers) to teach their work to companies in their absence. Most repetiteurs have danced the works of these choreographers, worked as ballet masters/mistresses while the choreographer was making the piece, or are long-time friends of these dance makers, who they trust on a personal level to share their work as it was intended to be performed.

Costume/Dancewear Designer – Dancewear can be quite expensive to buy, especially while surviving on an artist’s salary. Maybe a dancer wanted new leg warmers or a leotard, so they decided to go at it on their own. Then, perhaps, that dancer wore their new leo in class and all of their friends asked where they got it. Before they know it, they are making dance wear for their friends and selling their products online to supplement their income. Many dancers just happen upon other talents they possess out of need or to enrich their lives outside of the studio. It is not uncommon for these dancers to eventually own a dancewear line or to begin moving in the direction of costume design. Already possessing an artistic sensibility and an eye for what looks good on a dancer, this post-performance career befits dancers who have left the stage to enter this side of the profession.

Administrator (Company or School) – For dancer’s like me, who are seeking longevity in the arts world beyond their time onstage, working in administration is a great way to stay connected and give back to your art. Whether working as an Executive Director guiding the financial health of an organization and executing the vision of the Artistic Director, joining a marketing team to help promote an organization’s work, or helping create dancer’s of the future as a School Principal, administrators keep the world of dance functioning on a systematic level outside of the studio. Today, many dancers are gaining degrees in Arts Administration to help gain tools to bring dance forward into a more fiscally responsible era with greater visibility for our great art form.

Technical Director/Lighting Designer – Have you ever found yourself enthralled by the happenings onstage behind and surrounding dancers. I am talking lighting, scenery, and stage craft? If so, you may be the perfect person to work as a technical or lighting director. These behind the scenes masters can turn a stage into an atmospherically magical box for dancers to perform their art. This jobs responsibilities often include lighting design, coordinating scenery and crew members, and creating all of the onstage magic that makes a fairytale ballet so ethereal to view.

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Dance Photographer – Lee Cherry

Photographer/Videographer – Unsurprisingly, dancers tend to be masters of the visual arts, as well. Standing in front of a mirror day-in and day-out gives dancers a scrupulous eye when it comes to line, imagery, and the most minute details. For this reason, it is no surprise that many dancers are complete naturals when it comes to photography and film-making.

Arts Lobbyist – It takes a lot of grit to sustain a dance career. These days, especially, it also takes a shit ton of grit to fight for what is right and needed in Washington. Many dancers who find themselves in leadership positions also make great politicians who are willing to stand up for our art form. We need more people than ever fighting to maintain government programs and funding that are necessary to keep dancers dancing.

Fitness Expert – Who else is more suited to share the joys of health and fitness with the general population than a dancer? Dancers not only spend time dancing in the studio every day. They have been working at their fitness since they were young children.

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NYCB Principal Joaquin De Luz training fellow dancer

Additionally, cross-training in other fitness fields is a necessary aspect of maintaining a healthy body, as is proper understanding of nutrition. Many dancers naturally fall into the fields of fitness trainers, pilates coaches, gyrotonics coaches, yoga instructors, and other areas of the fitness world.

Physical Therapists/Medical Experts – Dancers spend their lifetimes analyzing everything from the way their body looks on the outside to the way the tiniest muscles and joints move on the inside. This gives dancers an edge when it comes to understanding how the body works and using that knowledge to help keep dancers dancing. Some of the best physical therapists I have ever worked with were either working as therapists in their post-performance careers or were training to become dancers and changed their focus towards P.T. after suffering an injury, burning out, or deciding not to further pursue a dance career.

Whatever the Hell You Want to Be – In reality, there is no definitive pathway to the post-performance careers of professional dancers. Many dancers want to remain in our magical field. But many move on to become successful in a multitude of professions. With intense work ethics, determination, grit, instantaneous problem solving abilities, and so much more, dancers are adept to finding success in most any career in or outside of dance. No more than 20 years ago, it was assumed that the only appropriate ages to attend college were between 18 and 24 years old. These days, it is now acceptable and common to gain your secondary education at any point in your life. For this reason, many dancers are heading straight to college outside of their first careers as dancers and moving on to become doctors, lawyers, and other successful professionals. The great thing about these artists in non-artistic professions is that they become our ticket buying audience and use their fruitful salaries to help support arts organizations around the country.

The Art of Reinvention

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Taking a Final Bow (Photo: J.Ro)

Isn’t it funny how life never leads you exactly where you think it will take you. I have a saying that I always get what I want, I just never get it how I expected it. If you work hard, are honest and kind, and are willing to take risks, I truly believe that you get what you need. It just isn’t always what you expected or thought you needed. And you may not realize this until you’ve spent some time in that specific experience. Well, here I am, Barry Kerollis, the creator of the popular dance blog Life of a Freelance Dancer, beginning a brand new writing endeavor about the post-performance careers of professional dancers that I felt would be most appropriately titled Dancing Offstage. Now, how the hell did I get here?

If you know me from my previous blog, thank you for being a dedicated reader of my work. But if you happen upon this post and choose to read on in intrigue and curiosity, let me tell you a little bit about myself through my own personal reinvention.

Any successful person needs to have the capacity to reinvent themselves throughout their lives and careers. We all start as little kids and identify with the innocent mind and body of a child. Then puberty hits and we have to reinvent the idea of who we are and how the world views us. For me, my reinvention of self into adulthood involved a refined sense of my personal masculinity as a teenage dancer; which included the deepening of my voice, pronounced musculature, and socially idealized sexuality projected by our culture and the connotations that came along with being an American male dancer. This was only one of my first major reinventions of self. It happened again when I decided to come out as a gay man and pursue a career in an elite art form that requires mere teenagers to work in an intensely stressful field at performance levels higher than middle aged employees in major corporations. Reinvention is the lifeblood of success and I find myself very aware of this, especially in this particular period of my life. But you’ll have to keep reading, I’ll get to that in a second.
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Who am I and why am I waxing poetic about reinvention? I am a passionate influencer in the unique art form of dance. I have been involved in the professional ballet and contemporary dance worlds for over 15 years. It may surprise people that I have such a depth of experience when I only turned 34 a few weeks ago. My major credits include dancing for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, and working as a nationally touring freelance artist for over 4 years. I have danced on stages at opera houses and concert halls in many major and regional cities around the United States. After spending 7 seasons dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, I felt the need to reinvent my dancing. As many of you have read in my former blog, my intention in leaving the west coast was to evolve myself into a contemporary dance artist and tour the country with my work. But as I said earlier, I always get what I want, just not how I expect it. After joining Ballet X in Philadelphia to achieve this goal, I became injured. And as history would tell it, instead of being supported by this young, fledgling company, I was fired, kicked to the curb, and forced to reinvent myself in a different way than I planned. This wasn’t a choice. It was survival. In this painful period, I reinvented myself almost immediately, turning my career-style into that of a freelance artist and began blogging. I didn’t write because it helped me express myself. Instead, I did it through necessity. I had no idea what I was doing, I was scared, I didn’t know how to find work, and I couldn’t find any information about the world that I was blindly entering. So, I found my way into writing to offer a tool to others in my situation, as a journal of my experience, and in hopes that it would become a valuable marketing tool for myself and my colleagues. Five years later, my former blog has been featured in articles by Dance Magazine, has been viewed over 330,000 times, has solidified paying work for me, and has been viewed by people in over 100 countries around the world. It was a successful endeavor. So, why did I stop and decide to start this new venture here at Dancing Offstage? I’m getting there.
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Photo: Matthew Murphy

At the peak of my freelance career, I found myself obtaining job after job, flying from city to city. During this time, the longest I ever slept in my own bed was 7 week (only twice). And I did all of this for 4 years with barely an audition. My blog validated my audition package and organizations would contact me and my network would give my name to employers. But little did my audience know that I was horribly burnt out and experiencing severe anxiety symptoms that were beginning to develop into physical issues. I ended up in a horrible situation dancing with Oakland Ballet, where my housing fell through and I spent 5 weeks sleeping on multiple strangers couches while not always knowing where I would sleep from night to night. It was no surprise that I suffered my career ending injury before I made it onstage with the company. While this physical injury was great, I hadn’t yet realized that I had developed a much worse emotional injury. It took nearly 2 years of soul searching to determine the root of the issue and remember why I loved the art form of ballet. I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning my greatest reinvention to this date, retirement from the stage and my first career as a dancer onstage.

I don’t think I was resistant to the idea of ending my performance career. I just didn’t realize that it needed to end. I couldn’t bring myself to take class. I couldn’t imagine putting myself in front of people to perform in a public setting. I couldn’t fake an emotion or act onstage or off (I’ve always taken great pride in my acting skills), even if they paid me lots of money. There were a lot of I couldn’ts. I still loved dance, but I couldn’t remember why.

To survive financially, I began to teach. And because I wasn’t performing, I took some time to focus on my choreographic career that was put on the back burner to allow me to travel the country for 4 years. With an unabashed and hyper-focused work ethic, I began to find myself again and started to gain more recognition for my work offstage than I had ever received onstage. From Dance Magazine to Pointe and Dance Spirit, a YouTube series I created received features. I directed Alaska Dance Theatre as Interim Artistic Director, where I began develoIMG_8945ping classes in contemporary dance. I was selected to create a work for the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative and was a finalist at the McCallum Theatre’s 18th annual Choreography Festival. Even with all of these accomplishments at the beginning of my transition, I still hadn’t even begun to tap into the depth of work necessary for my reinvention.

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My First Time on the Big Board at Steps on Broadway

After trying to make my home-base in Philadelphia work following those 4 years on the road, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to turn my focus to New York City. But I was scared. Never one to let fear prevent me from achieving success, I embarked on a near 2-year journey as a super commuter, traveling the round trip from Philadelphia to The Big Apple almost daily. Call me crazy, but this is when my reinvention truly took hold. My biggest successes throughout this difficult period of my career came in the recognition I received from acclaimed institutions. I was hired as a speaker for two organizations that were just named on a list of Dance Magazine’s most influential people and organizations (The Actors Fund & Gibney Dance). I was offered the opportunity to host my own podcast (Pas de Chát: Talking Dance) on iTunes and the Premier Dance Network alongside other prestigious dance luminaries. I was hired as faculty at both Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center, taught a master class for the Second Avenue Dance Company at Tisch in New York University, and received choreographic commissions from Columbia Ballet Collaborative and CelloPointe. Beyond this, I also began developing a 4-year codified syllabus to teach pre-professional ballet students the tenets and pillars of contemporary dance and movement.

As with most anything in life, the good must exist in balance with challenges.

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Studio to Stage – Columbia Ballet Collaborative – Photo: Eduardo Patino

Super commuting took a toll on me emotionally. Just like a caterpillar painstakingly evolving into a butterfly, opposing my newfound success as a dance educator, choreographer, and media personality, my entire life existed on a bus. Friendships fell to the wayside, I slept 4 hours on average most nights, and I lost any semblance of normalcy as my success outside of Philly grew greater. But with great effort and perseverance, I was able to come out to the other side. A few weeks ago, my husband and I finally made the move up to New York City to begin happily residing in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens. With this move, I feel that my reinvention has been achieved. Yet, the funny thing about this is that it is abundantly clear to me now that this is where the real work begins.

Everybody will have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their lives. But few people will have to do this as often and as young as those of us who choose to live the fascinating life of a dance artist. In this bi-monthly blog, I plan to continue exploring my own reinvention as a dancer who is no longer dancing onstage. I will share my experiences, my highs, my lows, my friends/colleagues, their experiences, and valuable information for dance artists, entrepreneurs, and people from all walks of life around the globe. I hope that you will join me on this new journey and that you will become an integral part of this reinvention process. Cheers!
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The View from My New Home in New York City