'A Dancer Dies Twice': The Unique, Sad Challenge of Retiring From Ballet

Acclaimed ballerina Wendy Whelan is just one of many professional dancers who find themselves struggling to transition into new careers as they hit middle age.

On a January morning in 2012, Wendy Whelan stepped out of a cab at the New York City Ballet dance studio at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The morning class was about to start. After changing into her dance clothes, Whelan, then 44, started warming up at the ballet barres. After a little warm up—tendu, demi-plié—she started dancing the pirouettes and gradually started doing the grand jetes. The day had begun like any other day at the New York City Ballet. She had been following the same routine for 28 years now.

Suddenly, she realized her right ankle felt a little stiff. Her joint felt locked and swollen. She thought to herself, all will be fine. I just need to get a massage, some help.

Whelan had moved to New York from Louisville, Kentucky, at age 15 in September 1982 to train at the School of American Ballet. In 1986, she became part of the New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet; in 1989, she was promoted to be the soloist. In the spring of 1991, she was promoted again, this time to the role of principal. She danced Ash that night, choreographed by the ballet master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins.

She would go on to dance to the choreographies of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, Jorma Elo, Twyla Tharp, Wayne McGregor, and Alexei Ratmansky, among many other top choreographers. In 2012, The New York Times hailed her as “America’s greatest contemporary ballerina.”

But the greatest contemporary ballerina danced that winter season on a stuck foot, and then in the fall of 2012, another accident happened: While rehearsing, she slipped and pulled her hamstring. Whelan didn’t give up, putting in more effort every time she danced. But by December of 2012, each time she hit the fifth position while rehearsing she felt additional pain in her hip joint. She discovered she had a labral tear in her hip.

She hasn’t been to a group ballet class since January 2013. She has not performed on City Ballet stage since December 2012. Instead, she has watched much younger dancers take on the roles she did at the New York City Ballet.

And so, for the first time in her life, she faces the challenge of a career transition.

* * *

Dance as a career entails an extraordinary high level of commitment and passion, extensive periods of training, and a professional life that is brief. 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.” But for professional dancers like Whelan, this "first death" can also mark the beginning of an uncertain, potentially unstable future.

In a first-of-its kind study in 2004, titled Making Changes, Facilitating the Transition of Dancers to Post-Performance Careers, researchers undertook sample surveys in Australia, Switzerland, the United States, and other countries to “assess the extent and nature of the challenges of the transition process.” In total, 11 countries were included in the study. Among its findings:

Currently active dancers expect to continue their performing careers well into their forties. However, dancers whose active careers are now over remember that, although they thought they could continue until their late thirties, on average they actually stopped dancing professionally in their early to mid-thirties.

According to the report, “The great majority of current dancers claim to be aware of the challenges that transition will pose (98 percent, 86 percent and 93 percent in the U.S., Switzerland and Australia, respectively), but many former dancers concede that they were in fact ill-prepared for this process.”

Many dance companies today ask dancers to take classes at some of the universities they partner with. For example: The New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey School offer classes to dancers at Fordham University while the American School of Ballet has an alliance with Long Island University. But dancers usually don’t dedicate their time and resources to academic degrees while actively performing.

Which is why New York’s Career Transition for Dancers (CTFD), founded in 1985 and one of just four institutions like it in the world, exists. It provides transition services like career counseling and annual educational scholarships and grants to dancers who are in the process of transition. Lauren Gordon, a career counselor at Career Transition for Dancers, told me that the center works with dancers who are seeking financial security and some looking for advice on enrollment in colleges.

* * *

Dancers usually receive oblique indications that their time is up, like not being cast for roles they once danced or seeing younger dancers chosen in auditions. Most know that’s a sign to let go and move on to something else. In November 2011, the ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins called Wendy Whelan into his office and told her she should not dance the Sugarplum Fairy part in The Nutcracker anymore. Whelan was stunned. She had danced that role for 22 years for City Ballet.

She later recalled that meeting to me. “He told me, ‘I don’t think you should do this part anymore. Because I want you to only look best on stage. And I don’t think this makes you look your best.’”

Whelan says her mind began to race. Look my best? But I’m physically fit. I’m dancing every day. Churning out, producing. Every ounce of me is for the New York City Ballet. And you think I shouldn’t dance this part anymore?, she thought. I never had a baby. I never took time away. She recalled tearfully telling Martins, “I think I am good enough in this part.”

“I didn’t feel it was time for me to not do that role anymore. It was a very big struggle,” Whelan said. She had already started giving up her many main roles. Giving up the Sugarplum Fairy probably meant the end.

Whelan had a hip surgery last August and used crutches to walk for three weeks afterwards. She is hopeful that her injuries will heal.

* * *

I went to one of the CTFD workshops for “older dancers” at their office on the seventh floor of the New York Actor’s Equity Building in Manhattan. The theme of the workshop was “Finding Work: Part II.”

Various handouts were passed around. “Job Search Over 40,” read one. It detailed the steps in planning a new career: Identify your transferable skills and areas of special interest; set goals/ define and focus on alternatives; Re-train/educate yourself; Write a resume and cover letter.

Another handout listed various career options the dancers in the room could explore: Personal fitness trainer. Pilates instructor. Casting agent. Dance journalist. A costume designer. Make-up artist. Dance studio owner. Personal assistant. Dancewear shop manager. Event planner. Interior decorator. Gardener. Personal finance handler for others. Jewelry maker. Backstage helper. Stage manager. Dog walker.

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Maroosha Muzaffar is a freelance writer based in India.

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