Moving from One Self to the Next

This post is definitely something a little different. Although I think about dancing and dancers' issues pretty consistently, I rarely give them much billing on this blog or even in public conversation. There are just more pressing subjects. However, a recent article (found on FB, of course) from the Atlantic inspired a renewed appreciation for my former lifestyle and some thoughts on transition for dancers and everyone else.

In this article,  the author describes "the unique, sad challenge of retiring from ballet." I was sucked in because I have experienced the "unique, sad challenge of retiring from ballet," and I agree that those are excellent, accurate adjective choices. My "retirement" was more of a sad ousting due to an ill-timed, career-stopping injury. Feel free to read a bit about it. I was only 20 years old when I was faced with choosing a new career path. Many people have barely gotten off the couch or returned from their European adventures to think about a first career at that age, so I was not too far off from my peers when I entered college. I suppose the major difference was that I was not in a phase of excited exploration of who I would be as I entered adulthood. Rather, I was reeling from the loss of my greatest passion and feeling like I should just settle for getting some employable skills. It was more difficult to pay for school, since most of my parents' savings for me was spent on the early stages of my professional ballet training and room and board in Seattle. It also was painful to sit through classes with a serious back injury that took years to heal. I was recently reminded (at therapy!) how hard it was to sit at my desk in administration at the ballet company I had danced with. I worked 25 hours a week at a job behind a desk helping other dancers while I listened to the music waft from the studios. After three years of that and not properly mourning the loss of my dancer self, I just about had a nervous breakdown. I tell these things to communicate that I get it. It is hard to quit dancing and find a new career.

Now, let's return to the article. The author adequately captured the difficulty of career transition, but I, and many dancer friends, felt that it was rather melodramatically told. I'm stealing a quote from a friend here: "Although I'm glad The Atlantic is writing about this issue, I hate this article: 1. Dog walker? Back stage "helper?" 2. I'm pretty sure Wendy Whelan will thrive on the other side and be able to pay her rent after all. Why so bleak?" Let me tell you (non-dancer) who Wendy Whelan is. She is a world-famous ballerina who, for a very long time, when I was a young dancer and beyond, was an iconic New York City Ballet ballerina. When I was an RA and student at the School of American Ballet for the summer, I had a little girl in my dorm suite that we called "little Wendy" because of her body and dancing. It was HIGH PRAISE. She reached the tippity-top of the profession. Now, I don't know Wendy Whelan, although I'm probably separated by one degree as the dance world is small and I have many friends who are still enjoying beautiful ballet careers. But, I don't know her, and I don't know the unique challenges facing her. I'm sure her injuries hurt the way all of our injuries hurt, and I'm sure it is scary to be in your forties (rather than your twenties) when facing career transition. But, people, she had an incredible career, one that almost no one gets to have.

Here's the FB response to this article I started to write before I decided I had enough thoughts to write a whole blog post and could reasonably spend a bit of Saturday morning doing so:

I agree [with the response to the article from my friend posted above]. It also bothered me (and maybe others would not agree...) because, although it is extremely difficult, requires physical sacrifices, mental and emotional control, and can leave quite the psychological mark as well, I felt that being allowed to live a dancer's life was like a fairy tale. How many people get to do what they love all day long and be applauded for it at night? How many people get to contribute regularly to the preservation and advancement of the arts? How many actually make it all the way to fulfilling their childhood dreams? Of course, it's not all roses, but one of the sacrifices of getting to live a life like that, maybe even just for a little while, is the difficulty of it being short lived- of having to start facing more mundane (though challenging, I know) issues of life and career planning a little later in one's years.
Well said, self! A life of dancing- a life of art and performance is an amazing privilege. And, as I teach my preschool-aged children: great privileges come with responsibility. These responsibilities include, but are not limited to, thankfulness, stewardship, and discernment. I need to emphasize the THANKFULNESS. A dancer who walks away from her career seeing only the ways she was used and abused (because, truly, she was, no matter how beloved) does not appreciate the privilege she received and will not be able to march bravely ahead. I am not talking about Wendy Whelan here. Again, I don't know her. My friends are discussing how being a dancer leaves you with all kinds of tested skills that have served all of us well in our second stages- things like stamina, self-denial, perseverance, keen self-perception, adaptability, spatial awareness, artistic education, music appreciation and the list goes on. With a focus on those skills and a gracious attitude about the life one got to live, you can find something else to do. People love dancers. I realize that's a general statement, but I have found it to be mostly true. When I'm able to think of dancing life with a grateful attitude and talk about it with people in a positive way, they are fascinated, and those conversations have opened many doors to me.

So why don't I always talk about it? Because of the other side of the coin. Throughout this post I have referenced the other side- the painful parts of a career in dance- use and abuse, both physical and psychological, and the truly sad fact that it does end. And when it ends, picturing another career can be unfathomable- especially when the end comes as a result of injury or firing instead of choice. I felt that way for sure. And here's why, a compelling hook for the Atlantic's article: "Martha Graham, the legendary dancer, once said that 'a dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.'" In my own experience, Martha Graham was right. I came to describe the end of my ballet life like the death of my best friend or my favorite part of myself. That's hard to bounce back from. I, along with many dancers, needed and still need a lot of help understanding the implications of this aspect. The author, perhaps not a dancer and without any firsthand experience, missed the real opportunity for exploration in her chosen subject. Sure, finding a second career is difficult- it's difficult for anyone! But I think dancers are better equipped than many.

The real challenge is learning to utilize the dancer parts of yourself when your body is no longer a dancer. I felt like I was walking around with a costume on- I was suddenly a dancer dressed in a non-dancing body. I did not know how to be myself anymore. I still don't really know! And here's where this article could have gone: All people have integral parts of themselves that remain hidden from the rest of humanity unless we choose to reveal them. We all need to move from one stage to the next giving proper respect to who we have been made to be. Some hidden parts are easier to bring out than others. It hurts to talk about how I "used to be a dancer" because I'm still mourning the loss. But, when I let that part of myself show, things happen. Almost every time. Same thing applies when I reveal miscarriage or the fact that I live with chronic illness. I understand why we protect these things- they make us vulnerable. But they also make us richer characters and more accessible. I understand that someone reading this may be feeling that she could never reveal the hidden parts of herself- the childhood abuse, the angry yelling at her own children, the details of her failed relationships, or her propensity for addiction. These are the things that make mourning a necessity.

I'm sure it is useful for dancers to get together and speak practically about career transition, and I'm proud to know several dancers who have and are working hard to institute programs that prepare dancers for their next steps in life. Locally, if you love watching Pacific Northwest Ballet's dancers entertain and inspire you, please consider supporting their lives after dance via their Second Stage program. BUT, here's what I think dancers would truly benefit from: counseling and mourning the loss of their dancer bodies. If we don't take the time, and this goes for anyone with hidden parts- not just dancers, to examine the effects our histories have on us and cry about the parts that were sad and yell about the parts that made us angry, then we can't fully use those experiences moving forward. The bad things shape us by showing us how not to treat others and how to be empathetic. The good things enable us to march ahead with deep pockets full of skill and experience.

So, do dancers face a "unique, sad challenge" moving from one self into the next self? Absolutely. So does EVERYONE ELSE.


On Santa