So, Your Professional Dance Career Didn’t Work Out – Now What?

So, Your Professional Dance Career Didn’t Work Out – Now What

By Susie Boyland, contributor

After all the years of training you put in, becoming a professional dancer didn’t work out, and now you have no idea what to do. Living in a cardboard box doesn’t sound like an attractive option…nor does living with your parents for 10 more years…Perhaps injury ended your career prematurely, you just couldn’t find a job, or you realized that as much as you love ballet, you really can’t stand repeating the same 10 seconds of a ballet over and over throughout hours of rehearsal every day.  However, if you had your sights set on becoming a ballet dancer, coming to the realizing that your dream career isn’t going to work out can be devastating.  So what now? There are many career paths that will allow you to remain in the dance world and use your dance experience without being a dancer in a professional company.

Dancers are disciplined, intelligent, driven, and know how to make a commitment.  Plus, being able to smile and look happy while dancing in pointe shoes with toes covered in blisters has its benefits in the outside world: your boss will never know how much you really hate writing those TPS reports (though after you’ve smiled through your fair share of grunt work, be sure to fight for that promotion you deserve!).  You also know how to work on a team: after all the hours of going into excruciating detail during corps work in Swan Lake while your teacher screams at you, working on a team project is a piece of cake!  And speaking of cake, you now can also have that extra slice without worrying so much about how you’d look in that hideous unitard you might otherwise be wearing in your next performance.

Nevertheless, ballet is a big part of your life and you’re not ready to let it go completely.  Good news is you don’t have to!  Most of these alternate career options will require a degree (or two…or three) or perhaps some specialized training, but fear not; the time and dedication you put into your ballet training is proof that you have what it takes to succeed in just about any career.  Here are five (and a bonus list) of the multitudes of other career options you might consider:

1. Physical Therapist
Let’s be real – all dancers end up in physical therapy at some point or another.  Having a physical therapist who does not know a plié from a tendu is about as fun as trying to explain to your non-dancer friends that no, you really cannot miss rehearsal “just this one time” to go to the beach.  Dancers will flock to a physical therapist with a dance background as they are hard to come by.  Helping other dancers to recover from their injuries could be very satisfying, and the training you will receive in physical therapy school will also help you to deal with your own injuries whenever they arise.  Plus, you will ace your anatomy classes, even if you’ve never taken one before.  How many other types of people can tell you where the psoas is before hearing about it in an anatomy class?  From my experience, not a whole lot.

For those who aren’t opposed to completing many more years of schooling, perhaps a career as an orthopedic surgeon is an option.  Every dancer’s worst fear when it comes to surgery is that he or she won’t be able to dance again.  Naturally this field is highly specialized and probably isn’t for most, but former dancers who do become surgeons could become highly regarded in this field.

2. Pilates Teacher
Now that we’re done discussing the scary stuff (surgery = yikes!), let’s get back to something we’re more familiar with.  Love it or hate it, cross training is essential for injury prevention.  Ballet dancers already have an acute sense of awareness when it comes to their bodies, and a pilates teacher who already has this awareness will be able to better meet the needs of his or her students.  Chances are you’ve already taken 203942038 pilates classes or thereabouts in your lifetime, so getting your certification shouldn’t be too frightening of a prospect.  Yoga is another option too.

3. Nutritionist
While you may now be allowed to have that extra piece of cake, most professional dancers have to be much more wary of what they eat.  As you no doubt know, in order to keep your body healthy and functioning at peak physical condition, nutrition is key.  For those who already like to eat as healthily as they can, this may seem like an attractive career option.  For those who wanted to hide in the back during nutrition class at summer programs, perhaps this idea sounds about as fun as repeating a long adage in the center.  In that case, let’s just move on to the next idea…

4. Lighting, Costume, or Set Designer
Jobs that help dancers lead injury-free and healthy lives are great and all, but what you really may be looking for is a way to still be involved in the performance aspect of ballet.  Lighting, costumes, and sets are what help to bring a ballet to life.  Creating a magical stage environment would simply not be possible without the work of these creative individuals.  You already know what does and doesn’t look good on the stage, so you’d be a natural at this!

5. Choreographer or Dance Teacher
These are the most obvious choices for a dancer who has to leave the stage but is not ready to leave the studio.  As dancers we have a vast amount of experience with choreographers and teachers, and likely know what we do and don’t like from each.  Many dancers choose one or both of these options after retiring from performing, but there’s no reason why these jobs should be reserved only for retired professional dancers.  These jobs may not be able to provide full-time work though, so perhaps these options could be a part-time supplement to another full-time job.

Lastly, a bonus list (which by no means includes the rest of your options):

  • Dance Photographer
  • Dance Journalist/Reviewer
  • Actor/Actress
  • Massage Therapist
  • Chiropractor
  • Dancewear or shoe designer
  • Business management or marketing work for your favorite company

If none of these sound good to you, then another option is to choose a career which is unrelated to the dance world but will provide you with the financial means and free time to enjoy as much dance as you want!  In my case, I got an engineering degree (undergrad only) and was able to get a job at a large aerospace corporation in a city with ample dance opportunities.  Engineering sounds terrifying, but I’ll let you in on a secret: Ballet is WAY more difficult!  My engineering job allows me to have the financial stability and time to take as many classes as I want (whenever injuries don’t prevent me from doing so) and attend professional ballet performances on a regular basis.  I know several other pre-professionally trained dancers who did the same thing and are also happy with their decision.  Not everyone is math and science oriented, but if you are then perhaps engineering could be a good option for you too.  Most engineers are left-brained and logical, but as a dancer you also have an artistic and creative element which can make you stand out.  Plus, who knows – maybe you could be the one to come up with a new and revolutionary long-lasting pointe shoe!  (One that doesn’t look like a Gaynor…#justsayin)

Each person is different and has his or her own skills and interests, but there is still a bright future for everyone whose dancing dreams didn’t come true in the way they’d hoped.  It will take time and effort, but when you think about all the hard work you’ve put in while training as a ballet dancer, it’s tough to think of something that could be more difficult than what you’ve already accomplished.  The end of your professional dancing days, even if they never begun, is not really an end, but rather the start of a new dream.

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5 things your teachers will never tell you… and they should

how to do ballet real ballet

If you are ages 11+ and you are training in ballet, like seriously training… Not like the, I dance ballet twice a week, supplemented with 4 jazz classes, leaps and turns and competition rehearsals… Like REAL TRAINING… Meaning you are taking at least 3 hours of ballet a day, and you are pushing yourself constantly. You parents are breaking the bank and paying for privates and coaching… You might be aspiring to go the YAGP, (the finals start tomorrow BTW in NYC), you might have your hopes on next years summer programs, or you are going to a summer program this year… This post is dedicated to you… and your parents.

1. “This is not the right place for you.” There are a million different schools out there, and each have their own approach, way of thinking and pedagogy. The reality is that not every body type is meant to dance, every technique. If you are at an ACTUAL super Russian school… Your body has to be gifted with turnout, feet that overly point, and a back that is hyper mobile… If you don’t have all those things… Russian technique is extremely difficult, and your muscles build the wrong way… You get bulky, instead of having that long, rangy Russian look. The reasoning behind this, is that dance studios are businesses and need you to pay the bills. They don’t want to lose students.

2. “You are too good to be here.” Studios again are a business, and so they like to keep dancers around as an “investment”… If your child shows potential, and is the best one at the studio or school, then it is time to move on. Sure, you can still learn things, and become stronger, but the reality is that a student has to challenge themselves. If there isn’t competition in the room, how are they striving to be better? Yes, ballet comes from within oneself, but the reality is, when you are around better dancers, you mentally try harder… Also, you need to be around peers that are at the same level as you, and are experiencing the same things, and struggling with the same things.

3. “You need to diet.” No, I’m not talking about starving yourself. I am talking about what a dancer should actually be eating to ensure a healthy body. The word diet in ballet is so taboo, but the reality is, dancers are burning X amount of calories, and shredding their muscles on a daily basis… So higher proteins, less carbs is a good thing. The amount of fruit and veggies are just generally good, I mean who doesn’t love a detox… Also, eating clean means healthier looking skin, so that is a plus.

4. “Ballet isn’t your thing.” So many times, I have seen girls prepped and primed for the world of ballet, but really they should have pursued jazz or modern. It takes a lot to be a ballet dancer: the right body proportions, the right turn out, the right feet, the right everything… Granted there are variances by company, by AD’s preference, but the reality is…. Turnout, hyper extended knees, a hyper mobile back, and feet that shape well are pretty much required. With the caliber of ballet dancers that schools are cranking out, there really is no room for anything else. If you don’t have all those things, there are other genres that are more relaxed… and if your child LOVES ballet, and dreams to become a professional, than find every possible thing to help make that come true… Private lessons, stretching coaches, pilates, foot stretchers and strengtheners (besides a theraband, but that too!)…

5. “Most of you will not become a prima ballerina. In fact, most of you will not go pro.” Hard reality to accept, but it is the truth. I have gone to some pretty amazing schools, and seen some pretty amazing, technically sound, musical and artistic dancers… but the reality is that most of them did not get a job… Those who do get jobs are BEYOND exceptional… And even those who did get a job in a second company, and then promoted into the first company, most of them were only there four a couple of seasons, if that, and then their contracts weren’t renewed…
From one school I went to in SoCal, which had a very high enrollment, and has produced really great dancers… I think, that 4 eventually went pro out of the senior division, and I think only two are still dancing in major companies. Both are still in the corps…

From another school I went to in SoCal that was a very small school, but offered great training… I think of the 12 students in the highest level, I think 4 of us went professional, but currently only still dances in a major company… still in the corps… I think the rest have gone into teaching… Now CPYB on the other hand… I think like everyone who stuck it out, and pursued dance seriously went pro…

The odds are really slim.

and… to throw in a extra one…

6. “I don’t know.” Very rarely will a teacher admit to something they don’t know. Which is a shame, because no one knows everything about everything. Most teachers very rarely go out and find new ways of teaching, or they don’t bother to go take anatomy courses (unless they go to college) to really explain muscle, ligaments, and tendons… They don’t go out and research how to teach towards ethnic body types, or late starters who’s muscles and bones have already set, or they don’t go out and stay current on how things are done in ballet. Most of them teach the way they were taught, which was passed down from some crazy soviet russian era teacher with a cane… I mean obviously not relevant but whatever. A good teacher goes out constantly in search for new ideas, new ways of approaching technique, and finding the understandings of different body types, ages, etc… (This last post was geared at ballet teachers at random schools, not teachers at professional or pre professional schools.)