What ballet dancers can teach us about retirement

People approaching retirement face a variety of challenges, from purely financial to the larger question of how to make the most of the next phase of life. But imagine facing the same challenges while still in your 30s or 40s.

Such is the fate of the ballet dancer.

Most dancers have relatively short stage careers, typically beginning in their teens and lasting no more than two decades. As with athletes, at a certain point the body is simply no longer able to perform. When that moment comes, it can be a crushing reality.

“I felt like I wasn’t an angel anymore,” says Steven Caras, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, of his retirement in 1983.

Last but not least, dancers are adaptable. Many go on to successful second careers – some remain in the dance world as educators or administrators, while others choose entirely new careers ranging from social work to medicine. Part of that is driven by necessity: Unlike many athletes, ballet dancers don’t make particularly high wages — the average salary is $69,000, according to one report — so they can’t just stop working when they step away from the stage.

Caras is living proof of what a dancer can achieve after retiring from the stage: he has worked in a variety of capacities with cultural non-profit organizations, including ballet companies, while also becoming a highly sought-after photographer specializing in dance. (In fact, his life after dancing was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary, Steven Caras: See Them Dance.)

We recently spoke to a number of retired New York City Ballet dancers, as well as other professionals in the field, to see what lessons they learned in stepping away from a dream career at such a relatively young age. And just as important, what such lessons might mean for those of us who are contemplating retirement—or at least the next chapter—at an older age.

Prepare early for what lies ahead

In a way, a dancer must start thinking about retirement almost early in their career, many in the industry say. It’s the surest way to guarantee employment—and most importantly, meaningful employment—in a life after dance. “I worked hard to get somewhere in the dance world, and I wanted the same thing when I left,” says Gonzalo Garcia, a member of the New York City Ballet Company who retired this year at the age of 42.

Garcia next works as a repertoire director on the company’s artistic staff, helping to prepare works for the stage. He prepared for what he was doing alongside his dancing through years of teaching and coaching. The point, he and others say, is to plant the seeds for your next step well before you have to take that step.

Gonzalo Garcia performs Balanchine’s Apollo with the New York City Ballet

Paul Kolnik

Don’t be afraid to try something new

During her many years with the New York City Ballet, Teresa Reichlen danced many major roles in works ranging from Swan Lake to Balanchine’s Jewels. But when she retired this year at the age of 37, she chose a very different role: running an art gallery in New York City in partnership with her husband, Scott Ogden, the company’s founder.

Reichlen says she’s ready for a change, especially since it’s about moving to an area that doesn’t rely on night work. “I kind of long for 9 to 5” hours, she says. And she partially honed her administrative skills by taking on non-dance projects in recent years — most notably raising money for a fund that supported unemployed dancers during the pandemic. The experience also taught her that she could find professional satisfaction outside of the dance world.

“I was fulfilled to be able to use my mind in a different way,” says Reichlen.

Understand that your skills are applicable elsewhere

On the surface, it might seem that a dancer’s education is best suited for a career in, well, dance. But the skills involved are ones that can be transferred to many areas, dance professionals say. “They have refined skills of direction, collaboration and analytics,” says Patricia (Patch) Schwadron, supervisor at the Actors Fund, a nonprofit organization that works with performing artists, including dancers, to help them plan career transitions .

Use different resources

Speaking of Actors Fund, it offers numerous workshops and seminars for dancers approaching retirement, as well as one-on-one counseling. It also awards scholarships to dancers who want to continue their education.

Dance companies also play their part. At the New York City Ballet, Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford, himself a former dancer with the company, involves company members in non-performance aspects of the organization so they can gain invaluable experience that could prepare them for their next career. “We just try to find as many opportunities as possible to challenge them,” he says.

Not that every field offers the same opportunities for professional exploration. But dance professionals stress that it’s always worth seeking any transitional help you can get.

Former New York City Ballet dancer Steven Caras left the company to pursue a career in the non-profit world and as a renowned dance photographer.

Edward Schneider

Accept the realities

There’s no gloss over the fact that retirement is tough — and maybe even harder when your career consists of hearing people cheering on your accomplishments every night. The key to getting by is understanding that you’ll need time to adjust, dance pros say. “There has to be a period of mourning. Nobody agrees to not being a dancer anymore,” says Patricia Schwadron.

Know that you can return – in a way

Just because a dancer “retires” doesn’t mean they have to stop dancing permanently. Many return to the stage for occasional roles. Teresa Reichlen hasn’t ruled out the possibility, though she says she needs “a bit of space” before she can consider any type of role.

Similarly, Gonzalo Garcia hopes to keep performing “whenever I find an opportunity that feels appropriate.” His conclusion: “Once a dancer, always a dancer.”

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