“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.”