Some dancers have the luxury of meticulously planning out their retirement from the stage and glissade-ing smoothly into their second career. While this is a reality for a small handful of artists, I have learned that it isn’t for the majority of us. Whether a dancer suffers a sudden career ending injury, gets non-reengaged by their company, or freelance work becomes more of a chore than artistic fulfillment, many dancers don’t get to plan out their retirement strategy with tons of advanced notice. For me, I experienced two completely different realities throughout my career; one that included support to prepare for the future and one that drained nearly half of my life savings and accrued substantial credit card debt in a short few years.
I feel blessed that I was employed for 7 years by a company that invested in its dancers and their futures. Aside from having the most generous 401K match for dance artists in the country (to help make up for the brevity of most dance careers), Pacific Northwest Ballet also encouraged us dancers to partake in a revolutionary program that granted up to $8,000 to each artist in the troupe (which could be used towards a college degree or post-performance career pursuits). During my time with the company, I used grant money from our Second Stage program to take classes at Seattle University, transferred those credits to gain my Associate in the Arts degree at Seattle Central Community College, and purchased equipment to build materials for my budding choreographic career. I was very proud that when I left PNB I had built up a substantial amount of life savings, had deleted all of my debt, and had obtained some level of college education while sustaining a performance career with one of the nation’s most illustrious dance companies. I felt I had gained some important ground on preparing for the future, whatever that meant at the time.
Once I transitioned from big company life to that of a startup contemporary ballet company, things quickly began to unravel. My husband and my cross-country move, a sick cat, a major pay and benefits cut, and a lease at an apartment owned by a slumlord quickly drained the $10,000 I had apportioned into my savings account for moving costs and emergencies. A poorly timed injury and the subsequent fallout (which cost me my job) wiped out the remainder of that hard earned savings within 10 months of moving across coasts. I spent the next 4 years working through feast-or-famine periods as a nationally-touring freelance artist. While on paper this was one of the most fruitful periods of my performance career, it was full of difficulties, stress, and anxiety surrounding my already damaged finances, my physical health (which was difficult to maintain performing with 8-10 different organizations around the country each season), and my emotional health (which suffered from being alone on the road for 8-9 months each year). In 2015, while attempting to recover from my career ending injury (which occurred in 2014), I came to the realization that nagging volatility and pain in my lower back would prevent me from returning to the stage. At this point, I began to consider transitioning into the second stage of my dance career. Only, I didn’t know it would cost me nearly $40,000 and 2 years of effort to fully arrive on the other side.
Most dancers don’t have the means to transition in the way that I did. While I began super-commuting to New York City in order to build my choreographic and teaching portfolio, I had to begin pulling money out of my 401K to survive and completely focus on transitioning. I didn’t have any money left in my savings account and I had begun to slowly accrue debt because I could no longer make money from dancing. Additionally, I had no other work experience outside of my specialized field, therefore any new work would be at greatly reduced rates from what I had developed throughout my adult life. What most dancers don’t realize is that it costs a substantial amount of money to transition appropriately and as quickly as possible. Aside from paying bills and rent, there are other financial items that often arise while transitioning; like the cost of education, reduction in value from previous income, and room for trial-and-error. Dancers who choose to stay in our field as dance educators or choreographers typically drop back to entry level rates of pay, as well. While dancers who choose to try something new have the exorbitant costs of college courses, fitness training programs (like yoga, pilates, or personal training), and a wide array of other financially draining items. The major challenge faced by retiring dancers in paying these additional costs is that most didn’t have expendable income during their careers to save up for these expenses, especially when transitions happen unexpectedly. This often leads dancers to rely on low wage non-career focused work to give them a chance to find their new passion. There is very little sympathy for retiring dancers who paid the price of college tuition during their finishing training years, started their professional careers in their late teens, and became so specialized in such intense atmospheres that there was little room for outside interest or cultivation of potential secondary work passions.
While I hated pulling money out of my life savings, I feel extremely lucky that I had this to fall back on to avoid distractions on my path towards transitioning to choreography, dance education, and media work. For dancers who have no choice but to fund searches for their post-performance careers with non-career trajectory work, they run the risk of slowing down their transition process or completely derailing it just to survive. While nobody should be given a direct hand-out at the end of their stage careers, it is important that companies work to provide dancer’s appropriate support and financial tools to ensure that they can transition safely and appropriately, whether it is their own choice or fate that pulls them away from the stage.
(How did you finance your transition? Did you have to take work that negatively affected your transition or forced you to give up on your hopes for the next step of your career?)