The life of a ballet dancer is frail and delicate, just like a butterfly. A butterfly’s lifespan is usually about a year, and within that year they have come and gone. It is sad, but true. The longevity of a ballet dancer is very short, and like the butterfly it happens in four phases.
1. The Egg. It is where it all begins. Somewhere in the world, you saw someone dance and something manifested inside of you to become a dancer. Or, you were forced into ballet classes and the music became a part of your life. Regardless, you were probably a turned in little girl, prancing up and down pretending to be a butterfly at some point in your dancing. They are the best videos to watch, I mean even Wendy Whelan was a bumble bee. Whatever you were, something started this transformation and after a little while you enter the next phase…
2. The Caterpillar. As a serious ballet student now, you are slowly inching your way through, class after class, year after year. We spend our time traveling across the US from one school to the next, one summer program after another. Hoping and praying that you will find the right school, attached to a company, for you to settle into. As a caterpillar, or student you feel hopeless. That the world of ballet is so big and vast, and that the hopes of you becoming this stunning butterfly seems far, far away. The hours you spend in front of the mirror being hypercritical on yourself, and taking a mental beat down makes the journey seem impossible. You see others around you getting eaten alive, and forgotten. Others are quitting and just giving up on the journey. Then there are others who get injured and they are taken out of the process, but you still keep persevering. And once you are exhausted, once you are about to collapse, a change inside you happens.
3. The Chrysalis, the cocoon. You find yourself at a professional school, and there you will spend the next few years training harder than ever, knowing that once you make it to the other side, there is a whole future out there. You realize that there are 20 other kids with the same dream, at the same school, but you know that if you work hard enough, if you push further, that you will have that much more of a chance. Once you are in a pre professional, professional division, trainee, second company or apprentice, it only seems like moments before you are going to be a butterfly… While you are hidden away, while you are so inside yourself, something mentally now happens. The stress of becoming an adult sets in, and you realize, your journey is really just beginning. You now have to break through the cocoon you cherished and worked so hard to protect. You have to break through company auditions, a year end performance, where it seems that your entire life is going to depend on. While not everyone is cut out to break through, somehow you manage to and become:
4. A Butterfly. Yup, it finally happens. You join a company, and you and your kaleidoscope (a group of butterflies) are set to take on the world. But, as butterfly’s lifespan is short, so are the career spans of ballet dancers. You have worked so hard, and now you have to work even harder. Not just for yourself, but you have to work harder because now everyone is counting on your work ethic. Your colleagues, your family are dropping out left and right due to injury, or they aren’t hired back. And you now are worried the same might happen to you. It is beyond stressful. All you want to do is focus on your dancing but the real world is constantly throwing jabs. As you are killing yourself in the corps, you hope that soon your artistic director will take notice of you and give you the chance to become a soloist. Take on the roles you have been dreaming of since a child. Yup, that sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the road to become a dancer seems hopeless and impossible. And once you do make it, it seems almost impossible to get promoted. With the physical strain your body has endured you think, god I hope I get promoted before my knee blows, or some other random injury creeps in. With a career so short, why are dancers so underpaid? Dancers justify their low pay by saying, “well, I get to do what I love.” Keep telling yourself that. As companies are trying to transition dancers into college, and university, or careers after… The reality is, dancers are faced with either staying in the corps, or making their way into college. Dancers get certified in pilates, or will start teaching to supplement their income. Unless you are at a huge company, the reality is dancers are horribly underpaid. Unlike Europe, dance is not supported by the state. Ballet companies are supported through small grants, and individual donations which is why it is important for ballet to get the exposure it deserves.
While you can’t buy a dancer for $100,000 and keep it hanging on your wall, you can invest in the future of ballet, so that a company can become a family heirloom. Recently, Lily Cole (one of my favorite models) posted a video on IG of her backstage watching Carlos Acosta and Natalia Opsiova take their curtain call for Manon. This made me realize that ballet just might be the center of the arts, but the most underfunded. Ballet is the combination of the geniuses behind music, choreography, lighting and set design, costume design, and the finesse of the human body. So, again, why is it so under supported? Is it because tickets are expensive? That artistic director’s might be getting more than you think? Who knows? So, if you are reading this, and wondering why your child might not have a career, it is because there is no funding. So, if you want to make sure your child will have a place to dance, make sure you are supporting your local company. This could be volunteering, donating money, or as simple as buying a ticket to a performance.