Body Dysmorphia in Retirement

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I’ve been struggling with my weight recently. Now, before I get angry tweets or confused looks, I am aware that I am not actually struggling with my weight. Yes, I could lose about 5 pounds and be happy to see my six-pack abs return. But in the grand scheme of things, I probably look fit to the general public and my doctor would likely tell me that I am in the lower range of healthy weights for men my height and age. Taking all of these things into consideration, there is one more important item to note. I am probably not the image of the person I see in the mirror and that has changed drastically since I retired from the stage and began focusing my energy on choreography and teaching.

Throughout my 13 year performance career, I was always quite confident about my body. Yes, like any human being, my weight fluctuates up and down a few pounds from week to week. And back then, it may have swung a bit more if I had an extended lay-off or was recovering from injury. But I never felt stressed by these fluctuations. I knew that I would soon be back in the studio dancing for 7 1/2 hours a day and the image of myself that I wanted others to see would return. I didn’t have body dysmorphia then. I knew what I looked like and trusted the reflection I saw in the mirror. My stress, confusion, and acute attention with my perceived body image wasn’t an immediate response to retirement, though. It was a gradual shift in mentality after a few events that grew into mistrust about the person I saw looking back at me in the mirror.

Weight is a constant topic among professional dancers. While some of those conversations are serious, more of them occur in jest. Perhaps, this is in response to the stresses of a job where the central product is one’s fitness and ability to control every ounce of their body. I can actually note two singular comments that began my distrust of my own perception of self.

The first of these comments occurred as I prepared for the role of Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This role requires the dancer to wear a transparent, open-front vest attached to a glorified dance belt over swirly tights down to one’s ankles. The funny thing is that I didn’t even have this costume in mind as I prepared for the role. I had been heavier earlier in the season due to an injury that kept me out of the studio. So, it made sense that I lost that weight as the season dragged on. Also important to note, beyond my rehearsal days and performances that season, I was secretly flying on weekends auditioning to leave the company. All of this dancing and stress had taken a few extra pounds off me. It was after a particularly long weekend of travel that I found myself rehearsing with a Principal dancer who was playing the role of Oberon (the character who acts as my master in the work). While other dancers were rehearsing the part, this dancer pulled me aside and told me, “You look bone.” After I looked strangely at him, wondering if comparing me to a skeleton was a good thing or a bad thing, he must have caught the confusion in my eyes. He very quickly followed up by telling me it was a good thing. I looked in the mirror at my thin frame and sunken-in cheeks and smiled at the compliment. My lowest professional weight had now become my benchmark for physical success, sex appeal, and confidence.

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Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Soon after this “compliment,” I moved on from Pacific Northwest Ballet, joined Ballet X, was let go from Ballet X, and started my life as a freelance dancer. With all of these changes and developments happening so abruptly, it took about a year after the bone comment before I had a moment to process all of the life changes I had experienced and allow my body to rest. It was also around this point that my freelance career began to take off and I careened on the wildest 4 year ride of my life.

One of the first stressors I noted during this period was that it was harder to stay in shape. I went from dancing 40 hours a week to rehearsing in bouts and taking expensive classes less frequently. Here, I began to see my strength, stamina, and weight fluctuate on a regular basis. If I was working a lot, friends would note that I was frighteningly skinny upon my return home. But after some time locally and not dancing due to extreme exhaustion, stress, and financial pressure, my weight would normalize or I would start to look a little soft around my torso. I controlled my frustration by telling myself that I needed the break, I would be working soon, or that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I believed myself, even if I wasn’t at my lowest weight standard.

It took only one comment to destroy my ability to see an honest reflection of myself. My body dysmorphia was triggered during a guesting opportunity with Festival Ballet Providence. During this gig, I had befriended one of the dancers who was growing into the role of the company’s regular male lead. I hung out with him once or twice outside of work and had briefly met his boyfriend. After an open studio rehearsal that the dancer’s partner attended, he walked over to me and poked me in the stomach with his index finger. I still don’t understand why he felt this was appropriate. But after poking me, he stated that I was “looking a little soft.” While I tried to laugh it off, the stress I was experiencing in my new career style and the concerns I already had about my inconsistent work and how it affected my body sent me in a tizzy. Luckily, I’ve never been at risk for an eating disorder. But from this point forth, I’ve always been overwhelmingly conscious of my weight and how others view my current fitness versus how I looked at my lowest weight. The worst part of this unsolicited poke was that I lost the ability to reasonably judge my own reflection and the memory of what physical attributes made me feel happy and confident.

I handled this issue like I do with everything else. I stress about it and try to micromanage the situation, but have difficulty finding a perfect balance that makes me most comfortable in all areas. My body dysmorphia has only gotten worse since I retired from my performance career. It stressed me out to be dancing less throughout my freelance career. I’m sure one can imagine how it has gotten worse when I am in front of the studio more often than standing at the barre.

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Looking at my post-performance career reflection in the mirror

The biggest challenge as a retired dancer with body dysmorphia is cultivating an honest, healthy image of what I look like to myself and how I think I should look as a former dancer. Should I hold myself to the skeletal standard that garnered me positive attention during my performance career? Am I expected to have six-pack abs as a choreographer? And, if I don’t, will I lose my sex appeal or get comments about the loss of my “hot” body? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do know that it is important to consider a healthy image of myself as I age. In my 30’s, I still want to look like the person I was in my late 20’s. But it wouldn’t be fair for my 45 year old self to try and maintain the gold standard I had during my dancing days.

This post is more explorational than it is informational. I don’t yet have answers for retired dancers and how they should handle perception of their bodies after their prime athlete days. But what I can share is that I am working to understand how I view myself as I age, while appreciating that wonderful time when my body was fit just because I showed up to work. It would be unfair to always expect to look bone. So, now I need to explore what looks good on me at 34. And after I figure that out, I’ll probably have to reconsider that answer every 5-10 years. Just like the changes our bodies naturally endure as we age, we must also consider the mind.

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The Fading Bitterness of Retired Dancers

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I was sitting with one of my favorite dance partners catching up over lunch nearly 3,000 miles away from the city and company that we had danced in for 4 years together. At the time, I was still dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. But my former colleague had moved on from her career and was transitioning into her second one. As we caught up over avocado toast, figs, brie, and honey from Le Pain Quotidien, I was struck by my friend’s perspective of her career and how it had changed so drastically since her final years dancing. As with many professional dancers who don’t track in the direction that they dreamed their career would go, she had become quite bitter and jaded during the final years of her time sharing the stage with me and our fellow dancers. While she didn’t project this onto her colleagues, she was quite vocal about the day-to-day happenings she was not pleased with and with situations (like casting) that she felt were unfair. Long gone was the woman who approached her dance career with a sharp, sarcastic wit. I was now conversing with a former dancer who spoke of fond memories of her decade dancing with one of America’s top ballet companies. I was confused.

What I was experiencing sitting across the table from my sentimental friend was something that I wouldn’t understand until I hung up my performance slippers and stepped into the same retirement shoes that she was wearing. Dancers are a very unique bunch with quirks that go well beyond their obsessive drive to perfect their technique. The best example I have of this in my own life was when I was sharing drinks with a non-dance friend back in 2013. After they intently listened to me discussing my travels as I freelanced around the nation, they responded with an inquiry that didn’t relate to the experiences I mentioned or my success in cultivating a unique career-style. He instead threw this query at me, “Do you find that you are generally a negative person?” In my baffled response to his question, I think it took me about 30 seconds of non-coherent starts and stops to find some sort of rebuttal. While I just thought I was having a normal conversation in my typical brand of candor, this friend had touched upon a personality trait that is bred into a majority of ballet dancers.

There must be a reason that many dancers are known to skew towards the spectrum of negativity. While there seems to be work on resolving this item (I’ve discussed emotional training in dance on my former blog), many students in my generation and before were taught that positive affirmation of your successes in dance training could possibly cause a dancer to become complacent about their technique and prevent them from continuing to critique, analyze, and improve their dancing. I believe that this style of training tends to develop young minds that are overly critical of things in their lives well beyond their dancing. Beyond this assumption, considering the fact that hiring, casting, and promotion are greatly based upon the opinions (vs. factual evidence of success) of those in artistic leadership roles, dancers tend to learn how to cope with disappointments that don’t always have clear reasoning more often than enjoying the elation and positivity surrounding the harder to get, exciting successes. When a dancer with high hopes for their career finds that they are coping with more disappointments than successes, they may become bitter about more than just the major upsets that they experience. Lastly, dance is an exhaustively difficult career that requires daily class, hours of time working into and through exhaustion, and pain and sore muscles that stay with you well beyond your time onstage. When a dancer wakes up in the morning and it hurts just to get out of bed, they may not be thinking positive thoughts about how lucky they are to get to dance for a living. In my deductive analysis, it makes sense to me that dancers tend to be negative or bitter about more in their lives than they are positive. It is infused into our DNA.

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Le Corsaire (Photo: Dmitri Papadakos)

As I mentioned previously, it took until I was out of my performance career to really understand why I often discussed things in my career with a tinge to full-on negativity and bitterness. Just like everything in life, dance will eventually take everything back that you have worked so, so hard to achieve. Only this happens at a much more exponential rate than other careers and life happenings. When I joined Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was thrilled to get a job with one of my dream companies. But after 7 years existing in the small, insular bubble of our company, I forgot what it was like outside of this organization and didn’t appreciate what I had because I felt stagnant and wasn’t achieving that promotion to Soloist that I felt I had worked for and had proven that I was worthy of. Only when I started dancing for smaller, regional companies as a freelancer did I actually appreciate the financial stability, the quality of work and productions, and the appreciation/treatment given to us as dancers with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Additionally, only now that I am outside of my performance career can I look at the challenges I experienced as a nationally-touring freelancer and be grateful that I got to see the country and learn about organizations and communities of every size and caliber as a part of my job. As the typical saying goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.”

Now that I am retired like my friend who I listened to with curious intrigue about her completely contrasting post-performance personality, this conversation makes so much more sense to me. As more and more of my friends have entered retirement and I have interacted with more dancers who retired before me, I find that the regular frustrations and disappointments of a performance career fade much faster than the aches and pains leftover from the physical commitments we make to our art form. Instead of casting disappointments and studio stresses, dancers remember the sound of the orchestra tuning before an overture begins, that feeling when the curtain flies out and you feel the rush of cold air on your face that immediately precedes the first step of a performance, the camaraderie one experiences achieving superhuman feats alongside their friends, the adrenaline rush and elation that is felt as an audience applauds your efforts, and the hugs and smiles one receives from friends, family, and audience members. Our career field is difficult, yet it is so special. And no matter what a dancer is feeling in the moment while in their career, I promise that almost every one of us will walk away from the stage with nostalgia and mostly positive memories of a dream that few others get to experience.

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(Photo: Jro)

Sharing Your Art – Perfectionism vs. Pretension

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Sharing our art form with some of my students at Greenwich Ballet Academy

As professional artists, we have worked very hard to perfect our art. In fact, for many of us, our entire lives have been dedicated to perfectionist acts in order to understand, live, and share our art form. For me, it sometimes feels like there is nothing more important than the refinement process in the studio, the artistic process in the psyche, and the exploratory process in the form of play, trial, and error. But at times, I catch myself sharing my artistic practices (something I care about very deeply) as if they have more value than anything else in the world. I’ve wondered over the years whether this makes me impassioned or gives off an air of pretension.

During my time dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was extremely unaware of the insular artistic bubble that I existed in. While dancing for this high-end organization for 7 seasons, dozens of highly qualified artists worked diligently daily beside one another using collaboration and competition to boost one another to the next level of perfectionism. This works well on an insular level. But it also tends to dissolve an artist’s reality outside of this bubble, as it requires an intense level of commitment and effort. Striving for perfection daily along with constant peer-to-peer comparison creates an atmosphere of exponential growth. But it also cultivates a sense of judgment that (while helpful and understood within our tight-knit community) bled outside of our thickly insulated bubble. This often led to intense scrutiny of all things across our art form as if they were all being judged by the same standards as we were, albeit not sharing our company history or budget. It took me leaving this intense, safe atmosphere to recognize the benefits and downfalls of having a mentality that the work we were doing was more important than most anything else. This was a place where anybody who wasn’t achieving an equally high standard as we were could be judged using words including bad, fat, unmusical, cheap, awful, weak, unqualified, and a variety of other negative descriptions. While this may appear as perfectionist behavior within one community, it may project as pretentious if these unwelcome opinions are shared.

Every dance artist has to start somewhere. Aside from maybe one or two prodigies in every generation that passes by, practically no dancer naturally begins performing technical exercises with perfection, maintains perfect physical form at all times, dances with immaculate musicality, or exudes the inner soul of every character they portray. Most of us start out with recreational intentions. And many of us do so without regards to how our feet are pointed, how fit we are, or how it makes us feel emotionally. All of these characteristics plus passion must be cultivated within an artist over a period of time without judgment beyond constructive individualized criticism. Similarly, all audiences must be shown why it is important for them to be involved in any cultural institution. If we present artists with expectations of pure perfection before they are ready to put that pressure upon themselves, it will be impossible to build the future of our art form.

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Sharing a lighter moment w/my dancers at Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

In my own personal practice as a dance educator and choreographer, I have found myself exploring the practice of making our art form important to my students without coming off as pretentious about the need for extreme effort, motivation, and artistry. Just because I had success in my performance career and love what I do doesn’t mean that anybody who enters my classroom will share the same sentiment as me. Just because I tell a student that something is important doesn’t mean it actually is to them. What I try to do is slowly educate those in my classes about all aspects of our art form. By adding interesting trivia questions at the beginning of class, I subtly educate students on American (and sometimes international) dance culture. Whether listing off major, regional, and civic dance companies, to explaining the company rankings, offering details on full length and one act works, the internal administrative and artistic workings of a company, and choreographers of note, I offer information that a student can take home with them and research if they find it interesting. Beyond this, I use other tactics to motivate physical and artistic development. Only when we pique a blossoming artist’s interest can dance become something more than an after-school activity.

When I first started teaching, I expected dancers to work hard because I already had them in my classroom. What I found was that many dancers didn’t understand why they had to work hard or know how to work hard in a way that was effective. My perfectionist tendencies would project onto students and come off as pretentious because they had not yet bought into the process or the need to create a sense of importance around their work in the studio. It is necessary to buy-in to do many tasks that artists do. Why do I care that I am holding my leg at or above 90 degrees for 8 counts? Why does it matter if I do or don’t let my standing leg give out in a pirouette. Lately, I have found myself telling students that, in the grand scheme of the world, it isn’t important that they want to do these things. But in order to accomplish these feats, it is integral that in those moments they are working in class or onstage that they feel that the work is the most important thing on earth. Only then can we accomplish superhuman feats. But it is also important while working with impressionable students (young to senior) that we remind them that there is a reality outside of our beautiful art form that must be recognized.

Looking at the separation between pretension and perfection in our art form also lies in who we are interacting with and how we respond to others that we feel haven’t yet obtained the same level of execution or understanding that we have. If something is important to me, but not you, and I really push the point, I may come off as pretentious. We too often share the tendency to tear down others in their process of finding artistic excellence, especially without consideration for where they came from and where they are going. I remember when I first started my 4 years freelancing with multiple established and fledgling professional organizations across the country. Only having the standards that surrounded me during my time dancing at PNB, I judgmentally felt that anything that wasn’t on the level of work that I had been a part of during my tenure there was either bad, dysfunctional, or laughable. I was afraid to share some of what I was doing publicly for fear of humiliation when viewed through the eyes of my former colleagues. But what I learned throughout this period was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout the entirety of my nearly 16 year career, thus far. We must remember that we are not all dancing along parallel tracks of artistic growth and expectation. We all exist in different stages of our art form and all have different purposes that can grow or reroute at any time.  A great example of this can be seen in the differences between dance organizations across the country. Some regional dance companies are still in the audience education period of their organization’s growth. Yes, their practices may currently be flawed. Yes, the quality of their performances may pale in comparison to companies with multi-million dollar budgets. But most of the nation’s finest cultural institutions started this way. Look at American Ballet Theatre. When they were merely just Ballet Theatre touring around the country by bus and performing in any and every theatre possible, they probably didn’t have the finest quality productions. Additionally, there was no nationwide comparison to vouch for the quality of these dancers. But look at them today. They are one of the leading arts organizations in the world.

The important thing to recognize here is that all artists are an important part of our community, whatever stage they are at in our art form. And in order to continue cultivating dance into a sustainable place, we must develop the importance of perfectionist actions through a carefully curated process that neither pushes potential artists away from the art form, nor tears down working artists that are not quite as far down their professional path as you are. If a young dancer stops training because the teacher doesn’t slowly allow them to explore why our art form is important, we have failed. If younger arts organizations try to force their audience to understand our art form too quickly, people will look at the organization as if they are pretentious and the company may begin to lose support. Without community support an arts organization can no longer exist. Pretension is a turn off that slows down or completely halts the progress of our art. For this reason, it is so important that we don’t let our own personal or “insular-bubble” perfectionism project unto others. Instead, I find it best to offer a helping hand that is ready to offer guidance and insight only when an artist is ready to accept it.

The Expensive Reality of Retirement

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Reaching for Financial Health (Photo: Bill Hebert)

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.

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Taken during the period I considered transitioning

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.

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When the only class you can afford is your own at the gym

(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?)

Do I Stop Dancing When I Retire?

 

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Patricia Barker in her famous tendu curtsy

I remember one of the first times I stood onstage as a colleague experienced retirement from their illustrious stage career. This didn’t happen to be any casual final bow. The lady that stood before me, our company, and her adoring audience had been one of the major factors in increasing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s visibility on the national stage and building the reputation for it being the feet and leg company of the United States. Patricia Barker, now the Artistic Director of both Royal New Zealand Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet, had been dancing at PNB her entire life. She was home-grown talent that became internationally-known as a Balanchine Queen. Even into her 40’s, she was dancing quite well and proved this by dancing an entire evening of works that represented her career and importance to this institution. When the curtain rose one final time, I clearly remember watching Patricia curtsying bent over in a tendu en croisée devant with her famous feet, which she often liked to do. As I watched bouquets of flowers launch onstage out of the darkness, felt the tickle of confetti pour over my head, and clapped my hands numb for what must have been 20 full minutes, I remember thinking, “Wow! This is the end for her. Does she just stop dancing?” When the woman we often affectionately called Patty returned to PNB a few months after retirement, I remember a short conversation that still plays clearly in my mind. Patricia had cut her famously long, blonde hair to about chin length, she had spent a ton of time in Hawaii learning to surf, and she had not taken class since the day she took her final bow. Now, the hair and the surfing, I totally understood. You have to maintain a certain type of appearance for the stage and you have to be very careful about your outside activities to protect your body from unnecessary injury. But prior to this I had never thought that once a dancer steps offstage that they just stop dancing cold turkey.

For almost every professional dancer out there, taking class most mornings is as much a morning ritual as brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of coffee. When you first start taking class, it is commonly in the late afternoon or early evening as an after-school activity. If you are lucky enough to make it as far as your finishing training, your schedule begins to resemble that of a professional dancer. The first class of the day for most pre-professional training programs is either before or concurrent with company class. Once a dancer becomes a professional, they spend nearly every morning waking up at barre, refining their technique in center, and warming up their body for the rest of their rehearsal day. By the time that any dancer has had any substantial career, this means that they have likely been taking ballet classes daily for anywhere from two to three decades. If a dancer retires and decides to break that pattern immediately, my assumption is that there must be physical, emotional, and neurological consequences.

While I had always dreamt that my exit from the stage would be at least half of what Patricia had, I didn’t expect my career to end the way it did. After 7 seasons with Pacific Northwest Ballet, a failed transition to Ballet X, and a 4-year national freelance career, I became badly injured. Beyond the fact that I was trying to stabilize my career away from freelancing to avoid traveling so much and I wasn’t always dancing in appropriate conditions, I truly think a major reason for such a devastating injury was due to severe burn out that I had not addressed. I gave myself some time to recover by taking a hiatus to direct Alaska Dance Theatre. Since I wasn’t sure if this was going to be my transition (and if it wasn’t, I fully expected to return to the stage), I continued giving myself class most mornings before my work day began. When I decided not to continue on with that organization after my interim contract had expired, I returned home to Philadelphia to prepare my return to the stage. It was January, so I had some time before audition season would arrive. I got back in class, I spent the longest period of time at my home in 4 years (5 months), and I began coming up with a game plan for audition season. I was still coping with the injury that had derailed my career nearly 9 months earlier. But, even worse, I couldn’t wake up in time for the morning open classes I would often take during my freelance career. And when it came time for the evening open classes, I would often come up with excuses to avoid them. I didn’t want to take class, but I felt guilty that I wasn’t following my plan. To remedy this situation, I began giving myself class at my local gym a few times a week.

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Prepping to give myself class at the gym

While I was depressed and avoiding most structured classes (which I didn’t realize was a result of my burn out), I spent 8 months staying in shape doing pliés and tendus in an aerobics studio planning my return. I was essentially retired at this point, but there was absolutely no chance that these words were going to come out of my mouth. I hadn’t resolved my career, nor had I moved on. But I was still taking class, even if it was my own. I didn’t even realize it, but I was cultivating my future as a teacher and continuing my daily ritual without having to define the parameters of retirement. By the time I started super commuting to New York City and started to fall in love with taking class again (thanks to the inspiration of Nancy Bielski), I finally saw through the smoky, hazy fog that had been hovering over my career for nearly 2 1/2 years and decided to officially call it quits from the major part of my performance career. Luckily, I had already laid the ground work for my post-performance career, which included continuing my ritual comfort of taking class as often as possible.

I’ve had this conversation about continuing to dance a handful of times over the past year. It seems that there is almost an understood notion that once a dancer retires, they should no longer be a dancer. And, to be completely honest, that hurts my soul. I’ve discussed on my podcast how a dance career is a major relationship and how the end of a dance career can feel the same as a divorce or major break up. On many occasions, when a relationship that deep ends, the two parties feel that they must sever the things that once connected them so strongly. But what too many people often figure out down the road is that the relationship changed them for the better in many ways. And to ignore what got them to that place would only hurt them in the long run. I know this is a roundabout way of getting to my point, but I feel that taking class and continuing to dance as a retiree is the same thing.

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PNB Company Class (Photo: Kurt Smith)

We spend most classes staring in the mirror, assessing our needs and criticizing our art. It just happens that our art is our very being. When our body starts to betray us (whether weight, injury, or age), we often become negative about our relationship with dance. Add the fact that most days a dancer enters the studio, they are either physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, or both. So, when a dancer finally gets a chance to release themselves from the commitment of our daily ritual, they go full out and remove it from their lives altogether. But in my own personal journey, I am so very glad that I didn’t have an official retirement, as it likely prevented me from accidentally removing my class ritual from my life.

When I take class most days, I find that my body feels and functions better and I am much happier and more positive. From my own personal experience, I am convinced that former professionals NEED to continue taking class for their own physical and mental health. I’ve read studies that the brain creates pathways with repeated actions in order for more economical function. If a dancer stops taking class for a few weeks, the brain doesn’t necessarily notice that this pathway has been neglected. But if a dancer stops using this pathway altogether, I believe it is disruptive on a cellular level. I’ve talked to retired professionals who stopped class for an extended period of time, only to find themselves back in class after suffering severe depression and increased body pain due to lack of movement in their daily lives. There must be something to be said about this.

One of the most validating conversations I’ve had in recent years was with an established choreographer and good friend of mine, Val Caniparoli. As I began transitioning my focus to teaching and choreographing, I asked him if he missed dancing. In his special form of sass, he turned to me and exclaimed, “What do you mean? I am still a dancer. I dance every day.” In that moment, it was so important for me to hear him say that. I had been grappling with the idea of losing my identity as a dancer because I was no longer performing for audiences numbering in the thousands nightly. But the reality here is that I am still a dancer, I am still in the studio moving every day, and I love continuing to learn about my body, technique, and art daily. We need to take away this idea that the dancer part of us ends with our dance career and remind ourselves that we will always be dancers. Just like a tattoo imprinted onto your skin, it is practically impossible to remove all that we become when we embark on a career as a dancer. The only difference here is that dancer isn’t a label, it is a human trait . We will always have a sense of being a dancer in our muscles and minds. And we should do everything we can to acknowledge that and provide our dancer selves the physical nutrition we require.

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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