NEXT STEPS - Life After Ballet
The transition from professional ballet dancer to…well…not being a dancer, had always been something that I feared. My course to becoming a business owner was not made of the same budding ballerina dreams of my childhood, but it is now the thing that makes me excited to get out of bed every morning.
It’s not something we typically talk about, much less prepare for, in this industry. Perhaps the hardest part of life after dancing is managing the overall Vision. Even as a young ballet student, the trajectory of a career seems clear. I witnessed my idols flourish and then gracefully bow out to begin something new. Not knowing what my extended future looked like caused uncertainty and doubt as I began to question how I would make my own move.
Every change requires an impetus for making or becoming different. For many dancers, that nudge comes in the form of an injury. For me, it was not the injury itself, but the time it took to heal that made me aware of an alternate future.
When I was injured during rehearsal just two weeks from an opening performance, I was devastated. I was dancing a solo at the end of an exhilarating, community-driven ballet (Helen Pickett’s “Petal”) and all the stars were aligned. It was the kind of dancing that makes you feel like a creature, one from another world, boundless. And then “CRACK, WAM.” I was down. Somehow my legs snapped from free floated behind me to directly square beneath my nose. The music stopped, I was sitting, like a child in a sandbox, just, “How did I get here?!,” a communal gasp.
And then in an instant, I knew. I had seen it before. I had witnessed colleagues in this same horrifying moment. I was out. All of the eagerness in preparation of this performance was upended. My feet never touched the ground the rest of that day — the men of the company came to peel me off of the floor and other dancers brought ice, leg warmers, a water bottle. I was in shock — I looked up at a friend, whose eyes were misty but desperately beaming encouragement, and muttered, “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to handle this.”
While I gave myself no other option but to return to dancing, and was fortunate enough to accomplish it (even having a comeback to “Petal”), I realized that I had set a new me into motion. I had poured all of my creative energy into my growing apparel business and was finding inspiration in new ways, and with new people. I had something pulling me, and so the thought of letting go of my formal dance lifestyle didn’t feel as scary. I had begun to discover that there was a life for me outside of the one that I had known.
4 Stages of Transitioning
to My New Job and
Dealing with the Unknown
AN INKLING - Is There Something Else?
Having interests outside of my responsibilities as a dancer gave me another outlet for my creativity, and a respite from the physical and mental strain of dancing. Among other previous forays (ahem...attempted custom cake decorating and bee’s wax candle making business ideas), I bought a used sewing machine in 2012 to attempt making a leotard. While there were many iterations that were barely wearable, there was one olive green camisole that caught the eye of my colleagues and led to a few custom orders. Word spread, and I had begun to build some momentum for this little side hustle/passion project.
I hadn’t anticipated this to be the reason I decided to leave dancing in the end, but it was occupying more and more space in my mind. Organizing an actual game plan on how to turn this hobby into a new career felt a bit like starting from scratch, but the more I toiled, the more validation I found through small opportunities. And those successes became my guide to enact an exit plan.
DECISION - What if I Regret Retiring?
I did struggle (sometimes not so gracefully) with finding the balance between maintaining intense focus on my dancing and branching out. I felt the tension of my two ambitions pulling me in different directions. I felt I was expected to give all of myself to the Ballet, even in non-work hours as I had for the previous 14-years of my professional career. I was very concerned that if I didn’t build a solid foundation for my new business while still protected with a safety net (mentally and financially), I would be faced with nothing waiting for me the day after I took my last bow.
I was occasionally criticized for being distracted. Showing up to the studio with a laptop for responding to new work emails on five-minute breaks instead of scrolling through my phone or chatting with friends made me stand out in a way that put people off. There was no handbook for how to manage two lives at the same time, both requiring possibly more energy and focus than I was capable of.
I wanted least to disappoint those people I was working with. And that did happen, I think. But there was positive reinforcement, too. People were interested in what I was creating. I felt there was a place for what I was offering within the dance community. There was so much that I was inspired to do and take on, all rooted in what I loved about dance. And I think that’s how I knew that I was making the right choices overall.
NEW IDENTITY - Who Am I Now?
There is one defining moment in the course of every costume design project when I feel as if I am balanced between two worlds. The most memorable instance of this perfect vantage was while visiting Ballet West for the creation of Val Caniparoli’s “Dances For Lou” in 2017. The preparation for this trip was the same as all other projects - I had the choreographer’s music, movement, and vision in the forefront of my mind. My task was to create a design that sets the tone and complements this direction.
I entered the studio with a posse comprised of a choreographer, a repetitor, two ballet masters, and an artistic director. I was shown to my seat at the front of the room. I sat down and placed my notepad and pencils on the table set up for me, opened up my laptop, and raised my gaze to the scene before us. I saw the dancers with wide eyes, posture held straight with anticipation. They looked to the team in front of them and waited for an invitation to unfold. For one small moment, I lost sense of who or when I was.
Sometimes it feels like no time has passed at all from my dancing days. I am still that dancer looking to the front of the room. Even though I now stand in the opposite direction with my back to the mirrors, I understand the longing and the hope that they feel about creating art from nothing, and it lifts me to do the same when imagining their wardrobe. It’s a full-circle moment, and I have been surprised by it during every one of the 50+ projects I have worked on.
I feel like I have built a bridge between these two worlds - dancing and designing. I’m working with the same community (often some of my favorite choreographers), just in a different way. My creativity is channeled through a new medium, and I get to continue to develop my unique voice as an artist with an added set of tools.
MOVING FORWARD - What Is It Like on the Other Side?
I recall a familiar patron after one of my final performances asking me with gaping mouth, “How can you just give this up?!”. My response was and remains that it never felt like losing anything, it felt instead like adding more.
It has taken time to refocus the lens that was locked onto only my dancing career for the first portion of my lifetime. There is certainly a feeling of loss for that special part of my life, and sometimes an overwhelming sense of isolation in pursuing some new. I still miss that full body euphoria that you experience while dancing. It’s an all-encompassing sensation that really only exists in the context of a ballet career. But by trying to extract the essence of that bliss, I recognize that the throughline is me. And it is me who now has the opportunity to try new things.
I’ve learned that even though I loved performing onstage, I also like watching from the wings. I thought that it might be hard to be supportive of my former colleagues, perhaps feeling as though I was missing out, but it turns out, I just have more respect for them now. I am satisfied by being a part of something bigger than myself. Being part of a team that allows me to create, become, and share who I am is extremely fulfilling. Raising each other up to achieve something that is greater than the sum of all of our individual contributions is rewarding in a way that I had not planned, imagined, or experienced before I had retired.
4 Things I Wish I Had Done
While Still Dancing
Being validated for even small accomplishments went away the day I retired. Learning how to feel full from within has helped me to feel less isolated in my pursuits. Though I suspect this will be a lifelong education, I wish I had been able to notice my association with pleasing others as the indication of success for myself.
Take Things One Step at a Time
I know now that the transition away from dancing is a long game, not a sprint. I could have prevented a lot of anxiety by understanding that it was okay to slow down. By taking breaks along the way (some breaths, five minutes, a whole month!) - depending on the project or what I needed respite from, I would have been far more effective coming back at it with a fresh head and clear perspective. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast!”
When doubt crept in during a new project, which it reliably still does, I struggled to recognize that I had been successful in previous pursuits, given the same ups and downs. Every project under my belt meant that I had overcome the associated obstacles and undoubtedly learned something. Trusting in that pattern would have shown me less wasted time and more confidence pushing forward.
Give Permission to Flounder
It’s part of dance culture - making everything look effortless, taking it all in stride, “water off a duck’s back” -- but the truth is, internalizing all that effort with no other outlet, ultimately led to feeling on the verge of burnout. I had conditioned myself to always stay “buttoned up,”, and I was terribly uncomfortable with being “undone.” Not having all of the answers for what was next meant many “messy” attempts at new things. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I could have chalked it up to the natural learning curve and seen it as progress.
Yumelia, I LOVE what you’ve written, too. I always used to watch other dancers, especially women, move seamlessly into their next “phase” of life, and it just looked so graceful. There’s a way about dancers that is ingrained after so many years of practice – to make everything look effortless. And it’s sometimes harmful to not witness that reality of a difficult transition. I’m so thankful to learn of others’ experiences, too. Not that it was challenging, but how they have come to recognize the beauty.
Thank you for sharing your experience. You are still a vision of my “ideal” ballerina, and forever role model!
Susan, beautifully said! I can relate, feel and understand every written line. There is no way of preparing for life after retirement, as there is nothing that resembles the exhilarating feeling before going onstage, the after performance indescribable feeling of accomplishment and the priceless reward of listening to the audience, reinforcing the entire cicle….
But, as you said, we are not losing something when we retired, we add more. Those experiences will always be part of us and what we are now. It’s YOU who lived all those blissed moments, leading to my favorite quote of yours; “recognize that the throughline is me”.
Well done beautiful Susan. My best wishes for you always 🙏