'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.

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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.

Outlined in various bullet points was advice on addressing age and the job search. How to get that job when the employer’s underlying concern is your age? It said: “Prepare stories to illustrate the advantages of hiring someone with your experience.” “Present yourself as active and healthy.”

Inside the room, Billy (whose name has been changed) told a dozen or so other dancers about how he couldn’t make any headway into television production. He spoke of his struggle to fit in: “I am right now at the lowest rung of this business.” He fell silent and looked around. The room was quiet.

“You have to decide when it is time to move on. I was dancing on Broadway for many years," another dancer said. "Then everyone was either getting injured or retiring and I was dancing with younger dancers. And they were so good. It was difficult to figure out what my place was.” She told the group how she made inroads into the costumes department and started working there, making sure she earned some money to pay her rent.

Another, slightly older dancer chimed in: “I started teaching when I found out I couldn’t dance any longer.”

Similar stories followed. Carol Bentley, a theatre arts dancer in her early forties, who is finishing her B.A. from St. Mary’s College in California, had many questions. “I feel like I am interested in writing,” she announced. “I am writing a paper for my course and I think I enjoy doing that. What are my options?”

Growing up in Michigan, Bentley had escaped an alcoholic father and a chaotic household by throwing herself in the rigors of dance. “I liked the structure of ballet,” she told me a few weeks later.  When she left, she had no idea what would give her life the structure or discipline that ballet had. “We shall see,” she told me.

Now it was John’s turn to speak (his name has also been changed). He was a choreographer but did not make enough money; he wanted to build a dance website. “Maybe it will have dance critiques, or information about various dance pieces,” he said.

“But how will you sustain the income?” one dancer asked.

John looked blank. “Maybe it will be like Yelp for dance,” he answered.

Someone said, “Maybe you can name it Delp. D for Dance.”

Everyone laughed softly, except for John.

* * *

One of Whelan’s chief concerns, too, is her financial security. “After this, I have to either find a job teaching, find a way to pay my rent. Find a way to get insurance. Start all over again with making an income,” she said. “We are not supported federally at all once we leave the ballet. There is no support whatsoever, financially or insurance wise for dancers in the United States.

“In Europe, very often there is federal support,” she added. “They take care of their people. Here, no care at the end.”

A report titled “Dancers’ Career Transition” by the International Federation of Actors explains: “In general, dancers in Europe can benefit from general national pension schemes applicable to all workers, provided they have contributed to the schemes.” It further mentions that “A few countries have specific provisions on early retirement of dancers. Conditions to access schemes and the amount of pension benefits vary considerably across countries."

“Some of these early retirement schemes,” it goes on to say, “are applicable only to dancers employed in national companies/national ballet (France and Norway, for example). In Latvia, a specific law applies to early retirement of dancers (and other live performance professionals). Several other countries provide in their legislation for special conditions under which dancers can retire earlier (like Hungary and Poland). In Sweden, dancers employed in public owned dance institutions, can benefit from a special pension plan run by the state which gives the right (under certain conditions) to a pension between 41 and 65 years of age.”

In the United States, though, “There is no governmental support for dancers that transition from full-time performing,” James Fayette, a former NYCB principal dancer told me. “The only benefits American dancers receive are the same as every other American has access to, Social Security and Medicare at 65 years old.”

The problem is that most dancers retire in their mid-thirties or early forties.

“Most union and AGMA dance contracts do provide some level of retirement benefits which are negotiated into the contract,” Fayette explained. “These range from as little as an additional two percent of compensation deposited in the AGMA retirement fund on an individuals' behalf to as much as 10 percent additional compensation for some of the larger companies.” However, this money is not accessible without tax penalties if dancers withdraw it before the age of 55.

“Many contracts have an exit or severance pay in order to help a dancer with their transition, and this usually is valued between one to 10 weeks of additional salary depending on the company and an individual's seniority with that company.

“However,” Fayette added, “note that these are Union, AGMA conditions, and most non-union companies do not have much if anything in the area of exit pay or retirement contributions.” Fayette recently left his job as the New York Area Dance Executive of the American Guild of Musical Artists—a labor organization representing dancers, opera singers, concert musicians—and took up the position of Managing Director of the L.A. Dance Project.

* * *

Today, Whelan is making small progress with her injuries; she has starting doing light exercises. However, she intended to be back on stage this month for her freelance dance project, Restless Creature, but had to postpone the tour due to delays in her recovery from hip surgery.

She still plans to appear in the NYCB’s spring season—but in City Ballet’s fall season, she told me, she was bidding goodbye to ballet. She will retire.

“I’m gonna go,” she said. “Because I’m hoping that that will take the pain away.”

She continued, “When you are a kid, you find so much comfort in dancing. I was comforted. [I thought,] I am safe. But then in the end, you are not really safe.”

This past Christmas season, Whelan didn’t dance the Sugarplum Fairy part in the Nutcracker. When she thinks of it now, it generates bittersweet memories. The part wasn’t her favorite but she had been cast in it for years. This winter season, she went to the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center to watch her friend, principal Janie Taylor—who is retiring this month from the New York City Ballet—perform Balanchine’s tragic La Sonnambula.

Whelan sat in the audience while the dancers took their curtain calls on stage. This time, she didn’t take any bows. Instead, she clapped for others.