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R.I.P Ballet Career

At only 4-yrs-old, when ballet was about pink tutus and I had no idea the kind of hold it would take on me later in life.

As we progress through our dancing careers, retirement isn’t necessarily at the forefront of our minds. It’s more of a far-off fantasy — an unreality of sorts. “One day I’ll be a [insert desired career number two here].” This is because, with a dance career, there is an intense sense of immediacy; “I want to do three pirouettes now”; “I want to dance this role now”; “I want to dance with this company now.” We never know when or how our careers will end and an uncertain future puts a much greater emphasis on the present. Essentially, if we waited patiently for things in our careers, we might never get them.

I am certainly guilty of many of these things: impatience, a push for instant gratification, and disregarding the repercussions this push for immediacy puts on my body. The human body is capable of amazing feats — as I learned recently about its capacity to heal itself. However, it is not invincible. Eventually, our bodies become less resilient to the strenuous nature and high impact of the daily demands we place on them.

I don’t say all of this to be negative towards the profession or the thousands of dancers who have spent the vast majority of their lives in the dance studio. Nor is my intent to be self-indulgent with this piece — though writing this was rather cathartic. I’m simply reflecting on my own impending retirement and this notion of transition, wondering if there isn’t a less intimidating and archaic way for dancers to engage in conversation about it.

While doing some online research, I came across a 2007 article in The New York Times about dancer retirement titled “Tentative Steps into a Life After Dance.” There were snippets of the piece that bothered me, but ultimately, it brought up some valuable issues. However prepared or unprepared a dancer is to take the first step beyond dance, every dancer feels grief for the end of his or her career. It’s loosing one’s identity, and phrases like “devastating,” “losing a great love,” and “death” are often part of the conversation.

In performance with the James Sewell Ballet; photo by Jim Smith

My non-dancer friends mock my use of the word “retirement,” and cannot comprehend how emotional and strange this process is for me. So I wonder, am I ready to face the world beyond ballet? Am I ready to end the longest relationship of my life? How will it feel to no longer introduce myself as a dancer?

I was never wholly ignorant that my career had an expiration date. However, now that this date has a concrete day and time (May 5, 2013 3:00 pm MST), I’m terrified and deeply saddened. I know it’s time. I know my body is not the same after my injury this season. And I understand the non-dance opportunities coming my way will not come again. But I cannot pretend it’s easy and that I’m not mourning a significant loss.

Both on a professional and psychological level, resources such as Career Transitions for Dancers and LEAP do exist to aid dancers in their post-dance lives. But can we change how we, as dancers, talk about it? Can we make this concept of transition more approachable and empower dancers with more knowledge, tools, and appreciation for the process? After all, we ‘speak the same language,’ and therefore, we can be each others best support system as we negotiate what it means to retire from dance and find new passions in life.

I have to thank individuals like Dd’s own Matthew Donnell, who chronicled his retirement from Kansas City Ballet in a public blog, for openly talking about his transition. Additionally, I want to give gratitude to all of the amazing individuals throughout my career, who I’ve been reconnecting with over the past few months. Because, here’s the deal, we don’t need to be apologetic about our emotions during this process to anyone, especially ourselves. And we don’t have to pretend like it isn’t a big deal, because it is. Maybe, if we don’t feel like we are going through it alone, we can cope better with the emotional ramifications.

Not too long ago, a friend said to me, “Once a dancer, always a dancer.” And it’s true! I’ll always be a mover and I’ll always be moved by this powerful art form. That simple phrase has carried with me as I approach my final performances as a professional dancer.

Whether on the other side of this process or going through it at the moment, I encourage others to do the same as Matthew, and share their experiences and thoughts on moving out of the dancer role. Let’s engage in dialogue about it. I’m learning as I go, and am certain I’ll have more insight on the matter as I move into a new chapter of my life. But, together, maybe we can reinvent this concept of transition within the dancer industry.

Written by Stephanie Wolf

Stephanie Wolf

An Atlanta native, Stephanie Wolf has performed professionally with the Minnesota Ballet, James Sewell Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, and Wonderbound (formerly Ballet Nouveau Colorado). She has a BA in Liberal Studies from St. Mary’s College of California. Her writing has been published in national and regional media outlets, including Dance Informa, Indianapolis Star, and the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Currently, Stephanie lives in Denver, where she is a public radio producer and reporter. She loves bluegrass, cooking, Netflix, and owls.