Life After Retiring From Dance

There was a great article in the Washington Post last week about what dancers do when they retire. Gone are the days when “retiring” signaled the end of your career. Instead, dancers are doing pretty much everything after retiring, including microbiology, bioengineering, surgery, geophysics…you get the idea. No profession is too much for these former professionals who kept their minds open to the possibilities after dance. It’s pretty inspiring stuff!

In my teachers’ days, after retiring, most dancers became dance teachers or worked for a dance school. A few became choreographers; many of the women got married and started families. When I was retiring, almost all of my colleagues went on to colleges and universities and had second careers, far from the dance world they had lived in for so many years. In my cohort at Boston Ballet, we have psychologists, teachers and lawyers, among other professions.

Today, the thinking has evolved even further. Many professionals companies have developed relationships with local colleges and universities to offer dancers the ability to earn a degree while dancing.

Opportunities like this are all around you, so if you’re worried about having to choose between dance and everything else, stop! There are so many ways to stay educated while doing what you love, and in so doing, be prepared for the next phase of your life.

This article is only one piece of evidence showing that dancers do incredibly well with their “after dance” lives. Determination, hard work, and self-discipline are just a few of the qualities that dancers have in abundance and that they carry into their lives beyond the studio.

Do you ever think about what you’d like to do when you stop dancing? Is there something you are passionate about that peaks your curiosity?


It’s Never Too Late to Change Direction

Dancers put a lot of time, energy and passion into their dancing. That dedication often spills over into other areas of our lives: we approach many other things in life with that same spirit of staying the course, without a thought to the direction we’re going.

When we’ve put so much on the line, it can be difficult to admit to ourselves, or others, that we are heading in the wrong direction. Our commitment is so complete, that there is little space for doubt or re-evaluation. When we do see the problem, a stubbornness can set in that says, “I came this far; I can’t turn back now.”


I had an experience like this while dancing professionally. While I had a natural facility for ballet and the technique often looked right on my body, it wasn’t always coming from a place of understanding. A good example was my alignment in allegro: when I was moving quickly, my knees were rarely over my toes, so that when I landed from jumps, I was often rolling in on my ankles and twisting my knees. It was very slight, but I knew it was happening.

Sometimes, the ballet master would point it out. I remember thinking on many occasions that I should really do something about that, but it seemed daunting. How was I going to slow down long enough to fix the alignment in my lower legs? Where would I begin?

In my mind, I had missed the window for fixing old problems – now I was a professional and had to keep moving forward. I told myself, “I can’t regress now, I’ve come too far.”

It wasn’t until I got a stress fracture that I understood the full effect of my stubbornness. I had been going further and further down a wrong road, and refused to admit it. Had I taken the time to investigate my alignment with a PT or a teacher, I might not have given myself the fracture.

“No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn around.”

I’m sharing this little phrase with you as a reminder that we have never gone so far in the wrong direction that we can’t turn around. We can always choose to take a new direction in our training, our habits, and our thinking.

Also, moving in the wrong direction has consequences: it takes us further from our goals. In some cases, like mine, our goals are brought to a standstill for a while. So, even if turning around feels like a setback, face that with the same determination you have in your dancing. Slowing down in order to reorient yourself in the right direction is well worth the effort.

Whatever Happened to Sergei Polunin?


Photo by Rick Guest

Scandal and Loss

Sergei Polunin, the Royal Ballet principal who walked out of Covent Garden last January with the intention of quitting ballet created quite the stir. In follow-up tweets and interviews, Polunin seemed to be done with dancing, a possibility which shocked the dance world.

“The main impact though, was a sense of loss. A dancer like Polunin comes along every two or three decades; to see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection…Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars (Nureyev and Baryshnikov), adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity…” says Julia Kavanagh in a recent interview with Polunin.

Some Answers

The Economist’s Intelligent Life section just published a lengthy article about Polunin’s choice on that January day in London. It also discusses where he has landed some eight months later. While he may have given the impression that he had tired of the disciplined life of a ballet dancer, it turns out he needed something very specific. And he found it in Igor Zelensky, the new artistic director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre.

“(Zelensky) knew I was going to like him, as a father figure. And he was right. That’s what really convinced me. It’s him,” Polunin told Kavanagh. And so he took a contract with the Stanislavsky, where he will dance for the next four years. Kavanagh says that Polunin found in Zelensky a friend and a mentor. “Always what I needed was a person who believed in me. Like a teacher. I don’t need them to say anything. I just need their support,” said Polunin.

That quote seems to sum up what had been missing for him at the Royal and how finding it has brought him back to his passion for dance. I am particularly thrilled that he’s back onstage because watching him dance live is on my bucket list.

The Trouble with Transition

Isn’t it strange how powerful a transition in environment can be?

It’s the beginning of the school year and so many students have embarked on new training programs in new studios. In a class on self-talk this week, someone mentioned how being a new student can really change how you dance- and not in a good way. Most agreed that the newness of the space and the sudden pressure of unknown faces watching you takes its toll physically.

Why is it that class, which you did successfully two weeks ago at your old studio,  is suddenly giving you so much trouble?

The students came up with some interesting answers:

  • Comfort Level: It’s true that most of us feel good in our own space after awhile; that comfort level allows us to let go of our physical tensions and mental anxieties. The mind relaxes and the body follows. It is surprisingly difficult to accomplish much when the body is tense; yet so much of ballet is about letting the dancing happen rather than over-thinking and over-muscling. It takes time to transition and feel comfortable in a new space- to reach that level of being able to relax into yourself again.
  •  Being a little fish for the first time: This is one of the most challenging parts of transition in general. And yet, moving to a bigger pond is such an important part of pushing ourselves towards our goals. But even with that knowledge, the mind can still talk us into a hole about it. Comparisons can become constant and distracting; telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough only feeds the fire.
  • Adjusting to new training takes time: The first time you’re told to change something about the way you dance, the experience of applying that correction can be frustrating. Although your mind completely grasps the concept, the body often does not follow. Brain: Adjust arm. Body: I like it the old way, thanks. Brain: No, adjust arm. Body: No thanks, old way is a-okay. What is that? It’s muscle memory and it takes a while to change it. If you have been holding your arm the same way for years, your body will not just adjust to the new way because you tell it to. Getting frustrated, while natural, won’t help. Your muscle memory doesn’t respond to emotion, only to repetition and re-training.


These are just a few examples of triggers that can challenge our self-talk. It’s easy to let the situation take control and to allow yourself to be dragged into negative thinking because you feel helpless. Instead, try to actively use your self-talk to help you through these challenges. Reframe negative thoughts to make them more positive. It might feel silly at first, but trust in the process: your mind and body are listening all the time to these messages. How you feel at any given moment during the transition can be managed by sending positive messages to your brain.

And slowly, the transition will become smoother. You’ll soon find that comfort level that allows you to push forward again. Just hang in there!


Healthy Body Workshop Take-Aways

A growth spurt can leave you feeling discombobulated. 

The School at Steps’ Healthy Body Workshop- take-aways continued…please see my previous post for the first part.

  • Physical Development

Among other things, Dr. Andrew Price, orthopedic surgeon, spoke to the challenges posed by a growth spurt.

Did you know that when you are going through a growth spurt your muscles are weaker and tighter than usual? It makes sense when you think about it because your bones are growing and the muscles are racing to keep up with the new length acquired. Usually, students find that they are suddenly very tight (especially in the hamstrings) and weak. It can be hard to lift your legs anywhere near your usual height. But don’t despair. This is all natural.

The take-away here is not to push yourself during a growth spurt.

Go easy on leg extensions and big jumps until your body is finished the spurt. Then focus on strengthening and stretching again. It’s best to talk to your doctor and your dance teacher if you think you are going through a growth spurt. They’ll help you navigate these new parameters so you don’t get injured.

  • Maintaining a Healthy Self-Image

Like many of you, I had followed the aftermath of a certain New York Times’ critic’s remarks about NYCB Principal Jenifer Ringer and her partner’s weight in December 2010. It was great to have her on the panel to speak to her own personal experience with staying healthy as a dancer, as well as dealing with the above-mentioned remarks.

The big take-aways were two.

  • First, that Jenifer, like a lot of young dancers, spent a number of years trying to make her body into something it wasn’t. She didn’t accept her body and spent years hating herself. Her story was about coming to terms with her body and learning to love herself, which included what she called her “womanly curves.”
  • The second take-away had to do with the New York Times critic’s comment. Ringer said that his comment was her worst nightmare come true. And yet, she felt fine. She was not devastated by it.

She attributed her ability to manage that comment to the years of work that she had already put in to accepting herself and loving herself as a healthy, womanly dancer. Her words were so positive, so affirming, and so important to hear. This level of self-awareness and acceptance of our bodies is something that we can all strive for as we learn to navigate the expectations of this training and art form.

Injured? Don't Watch Class.

Injured? Don’t Watch Class.

In theory…

When you are injured, it is often customary to be asked to sit and watch class. In theory, this is a good idea that should have practical benefits. Learning from observation and keeping your head in the game are two reasons I have heard teachers give for this request.

In practice…

In practice though, watching class when you are injured is a recipe for disaster because you are not happily absorbing corrections and gaining insight into things. Instead, you are undergoing what my students have variously called “mental torture,” “instant depression,” and “a lesson in frustration.” Does that sound overdramatic? It’s not.

The psychological impact of not being able to do something you love should not be underestimated: it is huge. A dancer who cannot use his/her body can experience a range of emotions from anger to sadness. Being reminded of what you are unable to do can have a deeply destructive effect, and that effect can impact your healing process.

We know that a large part of recovery from illness and injury is state of mind: the more positive you are, the faster you will heal. The mind-body connection is powerful, and if you spend your days in despair, it will be difficult to get back in the studio even when you’re given the medical okay.

Here are some more effective ways for you to spend your time.

  • Ask your doctor and PT what types of activities you can safely do, and then find a way to do them. When I had my fracture, I was cleared for swimming, so I joined the YMCA and swam every day. If you can ride a bike or do non-weight bearing Pilates, for example, get started right away. The sooner you start moving that body of yours, the better you’ll feel. 
  • Take class in your mind. (What? Yes, in your mind.) Mental rehearsal will keep the mind-body connection alive and receptive even when you can’t take class (or full class). Find a quiet space where you can close your eyes and visualize yourself taking class. Use recorded music if it helps. It takes a lot of concentration to do this, so you may only get through part or half of class the first few times. Try to recall recent corrections, and really allow yourself to feel as if you are dancing.
  • Get support. Dancers identify so strongly with their dancing, that when injured, they can feel lost. That feeling can become darker before it gets better. Keep tabs on how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask for support from teachers, friends, family, and professionals: seek out a coach or therapist. Talking with people about how you feel is an important part of the healing process.
  • Learn something new. If your healing and rehab process leaves you with time on your hands, don’t spend it wishing you could dance- it will only create a negative feedback loop and you’ll feel worse. Instead, commit to learning something new; when I was injured, I did a night school class at a local university; an injured friend of mine took a cooking class. Think about what you’d like to improve in your life (healthier foods, improve your mental fitness, brush up on your Spanish skills…) and dive in.

The aim is to keep your mind active and receptive, and your energy positive, which allows you to reframe your injury as an opportunity. Sitting and watching class often has the opposite effect, so be sure to talk to your teachers about how that request affects your mental health. Then, share your plan for recovery with them. 

Are you or have you been injured recently? How did you stay positive through the healing process?