How long does a dancer’s career last?
I am always ready to answer or debunk any Ballet stereotypes, however this line of questioning – longevity, security and stability of a dancer’s career – leaves me shrugging my shoulders. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ and there is no manual instruction leaflet. However, there is an unfortunately a damaging misconception that dancers perhaps lead a dead-end or short-sighted career. I argue, that this is the most exciting part of all; the chance to pursue more than one career path in one’s life is a gift. This isn’t even exclusive to dancers, but many people explore several passions within their lifetime.
As a young dancer, the insecure reality of a ‘Ballet career’, never crossed my mind and if it did, I would very quickly block it out and ignore the facts. We were always encouraged at school to pay attention to our academic studies, but quite frankly, I figured this was just a ploy to ensure a solid reputation for the school and to keep the Government and parents happy. The conversation and topics regarding ‘alternative careers’, was alway present yet came with an underlining sense of pity and ‘not as prestigious’. These conversations also triggered a deep anxiety and nausea in my stomach, therefore I became very good at ignoring anything non-ballet-related.
Since a very young age, my mind was set that I would forever be a dancer. Once I was faced with the reality that that is simply not realistic, I gave into accepting a role as choreographer. If anyone asked me: “How long will you be able to dance?”, I was ready to present a 20 year plan to them.
The thought of any other life path was completely out of the question for me. I was in this Ballet tunnel and there was only one direction to go. To be successful in this pursuit, felt like a matter of life or death and my state of happiness and sense of self-worth, was heavily dependant on what was happening inside the Ballet studio. I was fully absorbed and immersed in this isolated world and I had no headspace for anything else. Or rather, I didn’t allow headspace for anything else. There was also an underlining sense of guilt, if my attention would momentarily steer away from my ‘ballet bubble’ and very soon this became an increasingly consuming lifestyle.
Another threat to my blissfully streamlined future plan, was the risk of injury. During my training, I was rarely ever injured, aside from suffering with a chronic, undiagnosed hamstring pain. I also had reoccurring groin strains during my growth spurts and the odd niggle here and there. However, I was one of the very few and lucky ones, to never have had to take time off to recover from an injury. I guess I felt quite ‘invincible’ and therefore ignorant to the injury threat. I adapted a sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude.
I had heard many stories of dancers who had to stop dancing due to chronic or career threatening injuries and I also had friends who had to take weeks or months off to deal with stubborn injuries. Unfortunately, injuries came with a scent of weakness and misfortune and lead many dancers to feel excluded. (Thankfully, we are now gaining greater awareness as to how detrimental this form of language and approach to inures, is to dances’ wellbeing and their recovery).
After graduating and joining a company – and surviving a full season in my ‘injury-free ballet-tunnel’ – I vividly remember a conversation I had with a colleague who had been off for 3 months with an ankle injury. The one question I had to him was: “What do you do with your life for 3 months!?”.
Being injured as a professional in a company, is a whole different ball game than being injured at school. At school, you would still have to show up everyday and you would get Physiotherapy onsite, in between watching classes and applying more focus to academics. Company life, naturally, demands more independence.
After this conversation, I was somewhat unnerved and anxious around the thought of not being able to dance for such an extensive amount of time. Since the age of 10, when I had started taking ballet more seriously, I had never gone longer than a week or two without dancing. Summer holidays were the time for expensive summer schools and private lessons and I even always found ballet classes to attend during longer family holidays in South Africa. I was 20, fresh into adult life, and terrified of an existence without ballet.
For the first time in my life, I was quietly haunted by the prospect of injury. I was haunted by the the thought of being a ‘broken dancer’ and simultaneously a broken person. I finally managed to mute this distressing chatter in my mind until the day I was thrown into the terrifying reality.
Exactly one week after the unsettling conversation with my colleague, I found myself holding MRI scan results in my hand and a diagnosis which would take me off dancing for a minimum of 8 months. My Doctor, tried his best to console a critically distressed (borderline hysterical) young dancer. He was careful with his words but it was part of his job to communicate the seriousness of this diagnosis.
I was diagnosed with an Osteo-Chondral Lesion on the medial femoral condyle. This essentially translates to a piece of bone and cartilage which broke off in my knee. This genetically caused diagnosis is rarely seen amongst dancers and therefore there was no efficient research based evidence to reassure me of a complete recovery and return to the stage. Surgery was inevitable and as well as a period of 10 weeks with crutches.
Thinking back to that conversation with my colleague, I was troubled by the thought of 3 months. In a strange way, life was warming me up to the reality of my 8 month sentence. The blood in my head drained heavily down to my ankles and I tried my best to walk out of the Doctor’s office into an unknown labyrinth which I had to call life for the next months. That afternoon, walking home through Vienna’s main shopping street, is a moment I will never be able to erase from my memory. Everything that was happening around me, was a nebulous haze of passing life but I was imprisoned in my little bubble and didn’t know where to go from there.
Eventually, my little fighter kicked in and I started a game plan; determined to tackle this injury and come back stronger. Despite my determination, I was often derailed by the reality of my situation and the uncertainty of my future. I fell into the downward spiralling `worst-case-scenario’ loop, where the surgery and recovery would not go as hoped and ultimately an early retirement. (cue blood drainage and nausea.) I very quickly realised that, I had no drive, passion or vision for anything else in my life and felt utterly incompetent to pursue anything else. I only knew my bubble and the ballet world, in which I floated. The unknown seemed too scary and bleak to even think about and ultimately didn’t even feel worth living for. What or who was I, if not a dancer?
Post surgery on crutches, was an agonisingly humbling experience. I lost a lot of my independence (which was in fact, another part of my identity which I took pride in) and subsequently became very immobile. I felt like I didn’t even ‘look’ like a dancer anymore. I would spend hours in the swimming pool, where I could safely move my body freely through the resisting water. Amongst the morning ‘breast-strokers’ and the senior water aerobics enthusiasts, I was happily doing a barre in the corner of the pool; just to reassure myself that I was still somewhat worthy as a dancer.
My desperation to preserve my ‘identity’, was ultimately my driving force to do everything I could to reach full recovery and to keep so fiercely focused. I felt like I had everything to lose. In hindsight, was this the best or only way to navigate and successfully achieve full recovery?
I was removed from a ballet studio for a total of 8 months, rehearsals for 10 months and I was only back onstage in month 11. I was forcefully dragged away from all that I knew life to be however, I returned with a curiosity for the infinite possibilities of the ‘outside world’. I wasn’t distracted or redirected from my goals and ambitions, but rather I was released from a heavy inner pressure which I had unconsciously lived with for as long as I could remember. I began to appreciate the world outside of the theatre and explored new perspectives and enjoyed social circles with people who lived ‘normal’ lives. I noticed how much fresh energy and inspiration I could tank from other people and learn from their passions and how to transfer that into my own.
Since the recovery of my knee injury, I am no longer haunted by the prospects of a life after dance. My ambitions, discipline as a professional dancer, is now functioning on a backdrop of enjoyment rather than urgency or dependance. It is a gift and not a personality trait. Knowing that there is a world that will accept me when I leave the stage, is the most comforting and freeing state of being. It took an injury, to wake me up to this parallel perspective however it is something that we can all tap into at any stage of of careers. There is something so exciting about exploring your potential. As dancers, we have a unique set of skill and discipline which can be valuable in so many other endeavours; of which there are infinite possibilities.
My question to you is: What would you do with 12 Months off? What would you do with 3? Or 6?
Find peace with this possibility, and be excited to explore your potential. Release any fear or anxiety and invite curiosity. The harsh reality is: dancing is not a life long career (not for everyone at least) and that‘s the beauty of it. It’s a special time of your life and the fact that it has an ‘end-date’, should encourage us to be so grateful for every moment we have. But the life outside, is an even greater stage and ready to offer you so much, as long as you are receptive.
It may seem paradoxical, but making peace with the ‘short-lived’, unpredictable reality of a dance career, has helped me to enjoy my time as a dancer so much more. I am no longer dancing with an unconscious fear of ‘time off’, an end or a transition. I am living and enjoying the now, because I know that the future will take care of itself and that I will still find enjoyment and my purpose in the real, scary, grown up world.
Stay curious and explore your potential. Xxx