The other day I went to the Joyce Theater to watch the New York debut of Dimensions Dance Theatre. While waiting for the curtain to rise, a friend and I were chatting about the fact that I used to know dozens of dancers across nearly every American ballet company. The rosters of companies looked more like a personal year book with a collections of friends from summer intensives, year-round finishing programs, and companies. Today, most of those peers are in the age range of 30-38 years old. In pondering this part of my history, I noted how much things had changed in a short period of time. Nearly everyone who is still dancing are now Soloists and Principals in their respective companies or have left bigger company jobs to dance with smaller ones similar to Dimensions Dance Theatre. One of the most widely known facts is that dancers have relatively short careers. The top inquiry I field regularly in conversation questions the exact age dancers take their final bows. I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the years. So, why not share this retirement chart that I’ve developed and offer some insight to those of you with this common question.
Let me preface this chart with a few things. One of the best pieces of advice that I overheard after a colleague became injured was that there is no timeline to a dance career. I agree with this statement strongly. This is simply my generalized assessment of career duration based off of my own experience and direct research.
The Whole Pool of Dancers (any child that has ever taken class): A great majority of the American female population takes recreational dance classes by the age of 8. Out of this massive pool of dancers very few continue beyond their elementary school years. My assumption is that this is due to lack of interest, curiosity about other activities, financial circumstances of families, and more. I do not believe that many of those who stop dancing do so due to injury.
Middle School Age Dancers: A great deal changes during the middle school years. Aside from the obvious body changes that take place, dancers tend to grow greater interest in social activities with their peers. The next large majority of dancers leave dance during these years. I believe this is due to curiosity about other activities outside of dance (especially if friends are involved), revelations that their changing bodies do not fit certain dance aesthetics, and increased interest in social events. It is also around this age when dancers interested in a performance career will require a greater commitment to classes. Instead of a once or twice a week after school activity, dancers with career hopes will need to be in class 4-6 days/week and commit to longer hours in the studio.
High School Age Dancers: There are many changes for dancers during their high school years. The early years often mimic the end of middle school with some dancers still growing into their bodies and stress over focusing wholly on dance vs. exploring other interests. By the time a dancer is 16-17 years old, they must strongly consider whether they will fully commit to an attempt at “making it,” go to college before pursuing a performance career, or quit and focus on their academic studies. A very small group will choose to continue forward to a finishing school to complete their training with hopes of gaining professional employment. A majority of the rest in the ballet world will end their dance training here. In other genres of dance (modern/musical theatre/commercial styles), it is more common for dancers to attend college before considering professional employment.
Finishing School: Only about 25-50% of dancers who attend finishing school are likely to achieve a professional career. During these final years of training, dancers are pushed to their limit with a multitude of classes, school rehearsals, and (sometimes) company rehearsals. Most dancers need to move away from home as teens to attend. So, they must begin managing how to live, eat, and socialize on their own. Items that can pull this final stretch of training off track include injury (often chronic), disordered eating, lack of balance between work and social life, disappointment (class placement, casting, audition rejections), realization of potential, and more. This and the first two years of a performance career are probably the most difficult periods when it comes to sustaining a dance career.
First Few Years as a Professional: At least 25% of dancers who make it into companies will retire within the first few years of their professional career. Many arrive in a company and think that the success they had throughout their training will automatically roll over to their new positions. But the first few years in a company are a tricky minefield. Most who obtain a career enjoyed dancing leading roles in school performances. When these dancers arrive in a company and are relegated to the back of the studio as an understudy, perform mostly walk on roles in full length ballets, or only receive opportunities to perform dancing roles in the 2nd or 3rd cast of ballets, it isn’t uncommon for dancers to lose interest. Additionally, many dancers sacrifice their social lives during the final few years of their training, only to realize that they have been missing out. Sometimes, dancers will attempt to rectify this imbalance. This can result in loss of interest in dance, loss of focus on work, or too much partying. Also, the mental stress of being responsible for one’s own product and the physical stress of an entire work day dancing can often lead to burn out and injury. For this reason, there is a rather large number of dancers who only get to enjoy 1-3 years of their professional career before retiring and moving into a different field.
Mid 20’s: I’ve noticed that the next cohort of dancers usually retire around the age of 24-27. If a dancer is able to adapt to company life, they usually have a good 5-6 years before they suffer their first major injury. We all have minor injuries on a regular basis, from muscle strains to tweaked ankles, sore backs, and more. But the first major injury dancers have often requires more than a month of recovery or surgery. When this happens, dancers return without the knowledge and maturity to build back into their dancing. Many dancers, fearful that they may lose their jobs, get back to work too quickly and end up re-injuring themselves. Often this second injury causes directors to question a dancer’s ability to perform their job duties (leading to non-reengagement of contracts) or a dancer becomes frustrated and chooses to move on from their performance career.
Early 30’s: A majority of the dancers who retire at this age are long-time corps de ballet dancers who were able to sustain their career, but never had the privilege of promotion into higher ranks of companies. Dancing in the corps de ballets puts the greatest amount of stress on a dancer’s body, especially dancers who also get to perform soloist and leading roles. The body can only take so much. So, it makes sense that a corps dancer’s body is likely to give out before a Soloist or Principal (who may dance more demanding roles, but is usually given more time to recuperate). Additional factors that contribute to this group retiring also include frustration with lack of advancement, directors needing to free up funds for less experienced/less expensive dancers, aging out of roles like peasants, and more.
Mid 30’s: The next cohort of dancers who retire tend to be Soloists. These dancers don’t have the demands of dancing corps roles, so their bodies last longer. Many dancers really begin to complain about recurring injuries and constant aches during their mid-30’s. This age group also seems to feel very fulfilled with the amount of time that they have been dancing professionally. Most soloists appear to hang up their slippers before their bodies completely falls apart.
Principal Dancers: Based purely on my own experience, Principal dancers tend to dance until their body can no longer continue to dance at the high level their rank requires. It is very rare for a director to force a leading dancer to retire. So, it is usually up to the Principal to create a valid timeline as their body and technique begin to falter. Men tend to retire in their late 30’s because their backs can’t handle the load of partnering much further beyond this age. For women, especially those with natural physical facility, it isn’t uncommon to dance into their early 40’s.
Modern Dancers: It seems that the only dancers who completely defy the stressors of an aging body are those who perform works in the genre of modern dance. I have seen professional modern dancers working from the age of 15 to 74 years old. Modern dance has a more realistic progression of roles for dancers of all ages, so it isn’t wildly uncommon to see mature dancers continuing to find artistic fulfillment well into middle age and beyond.