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.
One of my goals in creating this blog is not only to share my own stories and experiences as I navigate my post-performance career, but to also offer a platform for my peers to discuss what life is like after they have stepped off the stage. My first guest blogger for Dancing Offstage is Michael Patterson, Artistic Director of Patterson School of Ballet. I met Michael while he was teaching in the Philadelphia area and have followed him as he moved to Erie, PA, eventually opening his own school. Read on to hear his story and the challenges he has faced as he traverses his second career in dance. Enjoy!
There are many roads to opening and operating a pre-professional ballet school. This is my story. Every story starts somewhere and mine began in Titusville, PA on my family’s dairy farm.
Titusville’s claim to fame is Edwin L. Drake who is credited with the start of the oil industry and football’s John Heisman. Had it not been for PBS, I never would have known that ballet even existed; there were no dance studios in Titusville. No one that I knew had ever seen a ballet before. But at the age of 6, my sister and I were watching our local PBS station and The Nutcracker came on starring Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I remember being totally mesmerized by their grace and strength and we were glued to the television throughout the duration of the program. I told my mom shortly thereafter that I wanted to take ballet. Her response was, “if that’s what you want to do,” and she went back to work.
At the age of 11, after losing interest in other activities (including baseball, soccer, and piano lessons), I approached my mom and again asked if I could take ballet. This time she signed me up for classes with my sister at Cathy Turner’s Dance Studio in nearby Franklin, PA. It wasn’t until I was 12, at the recommendation of my teacher, that I began studying classical ballet under the direction of Sharon Filone in Erie, PA. Later, I studied at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under the direction of Marcia Dale Weary and then joined Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002.
While dancing with this company, I was given many opportunities to perform lead roles and toured internationally (with Edinburgh International Arts Festival in Scotland being a highlight). Though I was progressing within the company, I was battling an injury that wouldn’t heal, even with time off. It was at this point that I left Pennsylvania Ballet and began teaching for the legendary American ballerina, Barbara Sandonato, whose daughter I had danced with in the company.
Though I had taught at summer programs on lay-offs, this was my first experience teaching in a school where I was responsible for the long-term training of students. It was also here where I got a crash course in dealing with parents, staging choreography, and setting schedules. With Ms. Sandonato’s guidance, I was able to feel more comfortable in a classroom setting, as well as honing my abilities to produce results and mentor aspiring students. In 2013, I was approached by a local university back in Erie, PA to head their children’s dance program. This new proposition would also serve as an opportunity for me to resume my college education.
When I arrived in Erie, there were only three students enrolled in the program I was to head. In order to promote the school, I dropped off flyers at many of the local businesses and by mid-year had 12 students in my classes. The program was nearly self-sustaining when it was cut only nine months later due to an unforeseen financial situation at the university. I had already planned a summer intensive that had enrolled 20 students, and I was crushed. It was at this time that a family whose daughter was returning to the area (after many injuries at another school) asked if I was interested in starting a school. At the conclusion of my intensive, I decided to meet with a lawyer who helped me incorporate my own school. The Patterson School of Ballet was born on August 18, 2014.
In seeking a home for my school, I looked at many places. But due to financial constraints, I couldn’t afford to renovate a brand new space. As luck would have it, and with some persistence, I found a former yoga studio that was already equipped with a cushioned floor, mirrors, and had been modeled in a way that befit a dance school. The interior was a warm inviting atmosphere, reminiscent of a lodge, and didn’t have the clinical feel that most studios have. I wanted a studio where moms and dads would feel comfortable and guest teachers would feel welcomed. Also adding to the warmth of the studio was a gas fireplace, which is great for Erie winters, and double doors that can open during the summers to allow the warm lake breeze to pass through the studio.
There are many challenges in having a small business, especially a ballet school in Erie. First, the community is inundated with dance schools. I set out to make something different in our community using lessons instilled in me as a child . . . “jack of all trades, master of nothing.” Our students learn how to master classical ballet technique, which gives them the ability to evaluate other dance forms and learn them much more quickly. While they continue to make strides in their classical education, many of the students attend high schools in the area that offer other forms of dance as an alternative to their physical education requirements. So, our students still have the benefit of being exposed to other dance forms. As I mentioned previously, affordability prevented me from building the ideal studio I dreamt of right away. As the Patterson School of Ballet has grown, we recently held a successful fundraiser to raise enough money to build sprung floors in our studio, which will be much better for the long-term health of my students.
When it came to scheduling our Fall classes for the first time, there were many factors that were also challenging. Our greatest challenge was the limitation on evening class times for students. It was difficult to keep up with the numerous school districts, as well as private schools, so I spoke with many parents about class times that would be convenient for them. It was important for me to have my students take the necessary number of ballet classes that a serious program requires. Another aspect that was crucial to the success of the program was finding a pricing scale that was competitive with surrounding studios. Most studios in our area charge very little for classes, with most charging as little as $10/hour. The Patterson School of Ballet’s tuition begins at $10/hour, but as students take more classes the price drops so students that are taking 14 hours of class have an hourly rate that’s under $6/hour. Unlike other studios in our area, our program is all-inclusive, meaning that students have regular guest/master teachers at no additional cost and there are no costume, rehearsal, or performance fees associated with our program. Any rehearsals are in addition to class time, so as to not take away from the purpose of our pre-professional training curriculum. As they say, you get what you pay for. At Patterson School of Ballet, parents make an investment in their training, without ending up with a closet full of costumes.
The Patterson School of Ballet’s curriculum is unique to the area, as we keep small class sizes and a proven graded-level ballet syllabus. Our program offers superior training, but also provides many performance opportunities. Since our first summer program, Patterson School of Ballet has established a 5-week intensive, a super hero half-day camp, and an August intensive. We have had guest faculty and master teachers Theresa Crawford, Matthew Carter, Abigail Mentzer, Melissa Gelfin, Danae Patterson, Frank Galvez, Catherine Gurr, Halle Sherman, Bob Vicary, Elysa Hotchkiss Walls, and Barbara Sandonato (who serves as Artistic Advisor to our school). Our students have had the opportunity to watch company class with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet, and have seen performances by them on numerous occasions. Our students also regularly participate in enrichment programs provided by Ballet In The City, where they’ve had the opportunity to work with Sonia Rodriguez, Francis Veyette, Lauren Fadeley Veyette, and other fabulous teachers. Performances include outreach with local non-profits in our area, in addition to our year end June Show. This year’s showcase will include Act II of Swan Lake with guest artists Catherine Gurr and Logan Martin.
It can be hard to deal with the competitive nature of having a business in the local dance community. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t give up my school. While there are many in our community who are incredibly supportive, unfortunately, there are always those from other local organizations that will do or say anything to discredit you personally and professionally. However, it is very important for me to not let that enter in through the doors of my studio. Although the students are not my children, I do have a responsibility to mentor them and help them become the best version of themselves, both inside and outside the studio. My mission is to enrich children’s lives and provide opportunities for personal growth and achievement by utilizing the skills developed in the studio. Any program should be an investment in a child’s future. It is not only our goal to train professional dancers, but to also give students a clear understanding of what it takes to be good at something, to take pride in knowing that you do it well, and to aspire to be more.
Check out more about Patterson School of Ballet at www.pattersonschoolofballet.com
The first day that I worked with American Ballet Theatre was filled with an enormous sense of accomplishment and a great deal of anxiety. It was during my final year of training at the School of American Ballet when I was one of 4 boys offered a trial contract with the company to go on tour to the Kennedy Center as a member of the corps de ballet in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (before ABT’s JKO school existed). I was David Hallberg’s 2nd cast when he would step out of the corps as the 2nd cast for Benvolio and I was tasked with learning intricate fencing and intertwining corps sequences from the moment I walked into the studio. My excitement of dancing with my dream company was equally balanced by my stress level, as I had never been shown so much choreographic material at once or been expected to retain it with such immediacy. This style of learning was a grand departure from what I was used to in school when it came to learning new material and preparing to perform it. Now that I have moved forward into the realm of choreography and coaching for a range of student and professional dancers, I use experiences I’ve had as a tool to help prepare dancers in the most appropriate, economical fashion possible.
There are a couple of ways in which students are treated differently when it comes to preparing for performances. Those moving in the direction of a professional career will often learn choreographic content that is progressively closer to what professionals perform. When I learned my first classical pas de deux at the age of 15, I learned it off a VHS tape (yep, throwing it back) of fully realized dancers in performance. While we were young and had not completely developed as artists, we put in our best effort and performed the pas de deux as we saw it on the video. While a teacher or coach can offer a simplified version of choreography, student dancers will (for the most part) perform the same steps as professionals. The only difference here is that technical tricks like pirouettes may not be performed with as many rotations or certain sequences may be simplified for safety until enough strength and coordination is gained.
One of the main differences when it comes to coaching a student is the amount of time allotted to learn the work, clarify material, and build stamina. When I performed the Don Quixote pas de deux for my graduation performance at the Kirov Academy of Ballet (you can see footage here), we began rehearsing for our May show at the beginning of February. With 2-4 hours of rehearsal each week on the pas de deux alone plus additional time for rehearsal of the variations, we had many hours of practice to ensure that we knew the steps, understood the characters, and had the physical prowess to get through this challenging, pyrotechnic 8 minute piece. Students are often given a greater cushion of time to allow them to safely find their way through the material of a professional while still working as a student.
The final aspect of coaching kids that differs from working with pros comes in the form of how the coach approaches corrections. For me, I find that there is a huge emotional aspect when it comes to giving feedback, as it involves giving that feedback and seeing how the student responds both physically and psychologically. I have been coaching students to compete at the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) international ballet competition for nearly 4 years. My approach has changed over this period as I have gathered more experience working with different kids from a range of schools. When I first started working with new students, I would coach them in the same way that I was throughout my final years of training and as a professional. I gave direct feedback that got straight to the point without any coddling or wasted time. What I found was that some students felt demoralized by certain corrections, as they weren’t used to this style of coaching, weren’t taught how to receive corrections in that way, or didn’t understand that a correction wasn’t an attack on them as a person. Dance can be confusing in that way because while we are correcting the body’s form and the way one portrays a character with their face, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with a dancer as person. It is just our pathway to express our art form and necessary to convey characters through dance. Now, when coaching my students, I make sure that we take time throughout lessons to discuss corrections, why I am giving them, and how they should be addressed.
This past week, 4 students I worked with competed in the final round at YAGP. One 13 year old in particular that I worked very closely with this season has made great progress throughout our rehearsal process. When we began, I offered a warmer approach to guiding her through corrections. As she developed during our time together, I began to alter my approach to working with her and started to give more direct feedback. By the end of the final round of the competition while discussing how she felt about her performances, it became clear that she had matured to a point where she understood critical feedback and had began self-critiquing her performances. In that moment, I recognized that she was ready to begin working in a more professional format. I sat her down and explained that my approach with her in class and rehearsals will be changing. I noted that I will greatly increase my expectations of her in class and rehearsals and that she should be prepared for a much tougher approach from me. I am a big advocate of teaching emotional well-being to my students and I feel it is important to carefully guide kids and teens into a state of understanding when it comes to extremely critical feedback. With this student in particular, she is there.
I tend to go back and forth between periods of working with students and professionals as a coach. Generally, when I work as a coach with professionals, it often comes in the form of me choreographing on them and then providing feedback to ensure that they perform my work at the highest caliber. After reading the above information, you can probably see where I am going when it comes to explaining the coaching process with pros versus students. Coaching professionals is much different than working with kids. There isn’t as much emotional coddling in a professional work environment. With less time available in most professional rehearsal processes, corrections are given in a matter-of-fact way and it is expected that they will immediately address issues. We also expect dancers to be critiquing themselves and working to fix issues before we have to call them out.
Beyond all of this, most rehearsal periods are much shorter for the pros. As I was discussing at the beginning of this post, going from learning choreography as a student to rehearsing with American Ballet Theatre, I experienced a major learning curve. There wasn’t really a progressive period from student to professional where I was shown how to learn choreography at the speedier rate in a company. This tends to be a sink-or-swim period for new dancers coming into their own. I was one of the lucky ones that figured out how to learn material at a much faster pace. Without much guidance, many talented dancers fall behind their peers with this new expectation. To help a bit with the learning curve, many apprentices and young corps dancers spend multiple hours of their rehearsal days standing in the back of the room understudying roles. They are essentially being taught how to retain material faster. For this reason, it is so important that professional division students in schools and early career dancers that are asked to understudy take this role very seriously.
There is no guidebook when it comes to coaching dancers to perform at their best. But it is important that those of us who are coaching students don’t blindly walk into a studio and treat dancers exactly as we were taught. It is important to look at the individual dancer and assess what their needs are. Sometimes, this comes in the form of finding appropriate material for the physical form of a students. While at other times, it includes determining how to build a dancer’s emotional stamina. If this process is appropriately followed for the individual, we will create professional dancers who can function properly in the challenging work environment that often accompanies company work. And in the end, students who become company dancers will have all of the tools they need to become efficient at their jobs and help their organizations turn out the best product possible.
As professional athletic artists, we come to expect to be in some sort of minor or major pain for a majority of our performance careers. Whether these aches are caused by day to day muscle fatigue or a more acute injury that requires rest, recovery, and healing, we are educated from early on in our training that these issues are a common hazard for dancers. I remember moments throughout my career where I dreamt of the days after I retire from the stage (of course, I hoped this would be after a prestigious performance career) and imagined myself guiding students through the rigors of professional track training free of pain and worry. Well, this day dream clearly wasn’t a reality because one of the biggest lessons I have learned in the early stages of my career as a dance educator is that teaching hurts!
Every one of us who has built our technique to a professional level knows how strenuous dance training can be. But what many instructors don’t realize is that, while not completely the same as a student in class, teaching is also taxing on the body. I have a particularly unique perspective here since I teach both ballet and contemporary technique classes to students ranging from recreational to professional. While there is a different approach to teaching each of these distinct styles of dance and level of students, I have found that I am in pain and at risk of injury just as much, if not more, than I was throughout my performance career. Why is this?
Being a younger instructor, I can still perform most of class at a high level. Even teachers who have been out of their performance careers for some time know how to fully execute the entire range of dance vocabulary and can still perform exercises with aplomb. Often, in our efforts to demonstrate for students, we forget that we weren’t warm to start with, we were warm and aren’t anymore (which is common when teaching multiple classes in a row), or we are constantly showing exercises on one side of our bodies (creating fatigue and imbalance in our muscles). It may not seem like a big deal when you are giving a plié or tendu exercise. But as we move to more extensive parts of class that include higher extensions or batterie, petite allegro, and grand allegro, we are likely to forget that we aren’t properly prepared to execute these steps. Giving class often tricks our mind into thinking that we are taking class because we go through the same pattern we did every day as a kid, teen, and professional. Only we aren’t performing these combinations beyond showing them to students. And in a moment where we are trying to convey the appropriate execution of a step to a student, we may forget that our ankles, legs, hips, and backs are not properly warmed up to show and share our physical knowledge.
While not always possible (some days I teach first thing in the morning), I endeavor to take morning class or to arrive early and give myself a barre before I teach. I have found that this helps me in the same way that warming up did when I was preparing for rehearsals or the stage. Sometimes, in my company life, I wouldn’t have rehearsal the first few hours of the day. But as long as I took class in the morning, my body only required a very short half barre to feel good enough to work through rehearsals. I find this helps greatly.
While this approach is generally helpful for my ballet classes, I am still navigating a safe approach when teaching contemporary technique. I have found that I am more at risk here due to the nature and structure of these types of classes. Over the past year and a half, I have been developing a codified contemporary training syllabus that is excitingly gaining traction. Where my classes first mimicked the format of a master class (warm up, technique exercises, choreography combo), they have grown into codified steps that can be strung together into combinations in the same way a ballet class does. Since I am currently the only one that knows these exercises (hopefully not for long), the movement is foreign to most people. In order to effectively teach certain movements, it is necessary for me to show steps full-out for much of class. With contemporary movement tending to be more off-center and less upright, it can really take a toll on one’s body. While I warm up earlier in the day for ballet classes with ballet, I need to be extra warm for contemporary classes right as they start. Unfortunately, my schedule rarely allots me this luxury. So, this is still a work in progress. While I prefer to walk around and correct my students, sometimes I find it necessary to join in performing exercises to make sure I am getting warm and staying warm. It is a tricky line to walk to ensure that my students are getting the most out of my classes and making sure I am warm enough to protect my instrument. One step I hope to take in the near future to counter stresses put on my body as a contemporary instructor is to cultivate enough dancers who know my technique to offer opportunities for students to assist in my classes. This will help me train dancers without risking injury and hopefully increase the longevity of my career.
One major commonality I have noticed among my colleagues is that teachers tend not to take care of pain and injuries in the same way that performers do. While dancing for Pacific Northwest Ballet, I had access to world class physical therapy, had regular massages, and addressed even minor aches and pains at onset of symptoms. Under the assumption that my teaching career would be easier on my body, I didn’t really head to the front of the studio with a game plan on taking care of myself. I remember the first time I spent more than an hour and a half at the front of the studio. I came home in shock, awe, and OW that I was so physically and emotionally exhausted. But this experience didn’t lead to an immediate sense of what my body required to continue teaching pain-free. Just like many dancers working professionally, it took my first real injury as a teacher to really raise my awareness and to take better care of my body.
While I am still not as good at taking care of my physical self as I would like to be, I see a chiropractor almost weekly, I am seeking a physical therapist I can reach out to without having to go through my doctor, and I try to get massages here and there. Of course, there is always the burden of affordability and financial stability. But as I move deeper into my career as a dance educator, I see how important it is to have a game plan and figure this out. It was really eye opening for me to realize what my teachers had gone through to pass on our incredible art form to me. And I am learning that if I want to do the same, that I have to be sure to take care of myself to ensure longevity in this second stage of my career.
(How do you take care of yourself in and out of the studio? Feel free to leave your answer in the comments)
I was probably about 15 years old when this conversation occurred. It happened around the time I became extremely serious about the prospect of having a dance career. The director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She had asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. Initially, she explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position, and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn’t expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did. “Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn’t do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field.” The look on my face must have been utter shock, as the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my art form had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.
Unless you’ve been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the grand ole U.S. of A. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years began to bubble to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly and those interested in our performing arts world were beginning to speculate if something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers, and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month as I was given a heads up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years). While the subsequent investigation into Mr. Martins’ behavior has yet to be complete, this has reignited my childhood concern about misinterpretation of touch in a class or rehearsal setting.
I’ve struggled throughout the entirety of my career as a dance educator with the decision on whether I should be a hands-on teacher or not. Dance is essentially the art of ultimate control of one’s own body. Understanding how to use your body correctly could mean the difference between an amazing feat or a debilitating injury. For example, proper execution as a student lifts their leg in adagio could result in greater height, better line, and exaggerated lift in the working leg. But more important than how it looks, a student who is not properly supporting and lifting their leg at superhuman heights can cause bulky muscles, seizing cramps, painful hip tendonitis, or worse. Sometimes, a teacher has to put their hands on a student to show them what their body should feel like when they aren’t properly aligned or are supporting themselves incorrectly. I know for a fact that this is effective. And I look back fondly on my teachers who were willing to get hands-on to show me how to work properly and assist me on my path towards my performance career. For this reason, I have made the decision to be one of those teachers that shares a very hands-on approach to teaching. Though, to be completely honest with you, I’m frightened by the idea of a poorly placed correction or an extremely sensitive student misinterpreting the intended purpose of physical adjustment.
I feel that this item isn’t as much of an issue for female teachers (though, I do know for a fact that they also have to deal with concerns about physically touching students for corrections) because of a few sensationalized cases of inappropriate teacher/student contact, which historically have been committed by males. In fact, there was recently a guest instructor who was arrested on the premises of a well-known New York dance school for sexually assaulting an underage boy at another one of his jobs. I was shocked to hear about this just as much as anybody else, especially considering that he hired me to teach master classes at his school in the past. But what was most disappointing for me here was that it gave dance parents fresh reason to be concerned that their kid’s teachers could act inappropriately towards their young ones. It is easy for protective parents to focus on one negative story. But for the few stories that have ever come out about these unfortunate circumstances, there are millions of positive experiences that students have with their teachers every day. It is important that schools focus on this and cultivate a safe environment that also includes educating parents/families on what is happening inside their studios.
Since dance is the art form of controlling our own physicality, we require students to wear skin tight clothing that shows physical alignment and muscle movement. This uniform leaves eager to please, impressionable children and teens exposed in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable in many places outside of a dance studio. If a student’s school isn’t educating their student body and their respective families about what is happening in the studio, this could lead to a more sensitive environment that could potentially be harmful to a qualified teacher’s career. Every school that I work for must have a waiver that is signed by all parents explaining that physical touch is an integral part of the learning process of dance. I refuse to work for a school that doesn’t have this protective measure in place. Beyond this, it is important that schools have regular parent observation days. Allowing parents to take a step into the learning process can offer them a better perspective on why certain practices are necessary.
I feel that my hands-on approach has really helped push my teaching career forward at a faster rate, especially in my open classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, where corrections are often less frequent than other educational settings. Like I said, I am still a bit nervous that a misplaced hand or a sensitive student could cause issues. But I have enforced a handful of practices that I hope will continue to protect me as I offer the best training I can in ballet and contemporary dance techniques. First and foremost, whether I am giving a private lesson or conducting a large master class, if there are no windows into the studio, I will try to keep the door open. I have nothing to hide, so I feel that an open door policy allows anybody to view the classroom/rehearsal process. From here, I try to fashion the touch in my physical corrections into the most obvious, non-sexual type of touch possible. If I am working with a group of students that are not used to my physical corrections, I will often ask the student before I adjust them, “Are you comfortable if I move your body to show you how to do it correctly?” This is often met with a positive response. Though, I am respectful if the student tells me no. When correcting, I adjust students with the sides of my hands or with my palm while my fingers are glued together like a spatula. Fingers tend to be more touchy-feely and can have misinterpreted intentions, so I try to avoid using my fingers as much as possible. If I do absolutely need to use my fingers, I will make sure they are rigid and avoid any inappropriate places. When a student requires corrections anywhere near any private area, I absolutely do not apply physical corrections. Instead, if it is a correction near or on the pelvis, I will show by pointing to myself. If it is close to the chest area, I will often pretend like there is an invisible string attached to their chest and imitate the act of pulling on the string to get them to shift their chest placement. If there is anything involving the rear-end, if it is along the sides of the hips or high enough like the gluteus medius, I will use the sides of my hands or a knuckle with my fingers tucked into my palm. The final protection that I enforce as a dance educator is that I will ABSOLUTELY NOT follow a student into a private place. If I need a student who is in the dressing room or in a bathroom, I will ask a parent or a peer to get them. This way there is never any question that I have been around a student in a private setting.
There is no better teacher than one who can build you up with confidence as they teach you our deftly difficult art form. It is pertinent that students receive information with clarity. I honestly don’t feel that anybody can become a professional dancer without any physical adjustments. Our American culture tends to be touch-sensitive, which can sometimes leave students feeling extremely cautious about any type of physical adjustment from teachers. I made the decision at the beginning of my teaching career that I would be one of those teachers that risk their livelihood to offer the best training to my students possible. And, it has worked thus far. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I approach each and every classroom I teach with tentativeness and an ounce of fear that one of my well-intended corrections may be misinterpreted as the worst of intentions. What has your experience been with physically correcting your students? Do you do it or not? And, if so, how do you approach making these corrections and protecting yourself as a dance educator?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 developing 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.
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.
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.