Why "30" is a frightening age for most dancers

Alright. Alright. I turned 30 a few weeks ago. I'm lucky that I still look like I'm in my mid-twenties (or so people have told me), even though I have stepped quietly into my thirties. When revealing my age to other dancers over the past few years, I have been encouraged to lie about my age multiple times. "Why would you tell me the truth when you could easily lie down a few years." While I couldn't imagine telling people I was 25, it does make one consider if age is really that important in dance. Why does it matter if you still look and dance young.

Blowing out candles on my 30th birthday
During the weeks leading up to my mid-October birthday, I slowly spiraled into a bit of a depression. I was, mostly, in denial about the reasoning, but what it came down to was that I wouldn't be home on my birthday, my partner wouldn't be joining me in Los Angeles due to financial constraints, and I had told myself for years that I wanted to dance until I am at least 30. As the day got closer, I became more anxious, stressed, and low. Then, the day came. My host family made me feel special, my new friends made me feel cared about, my phone and Facebook exploded with love, and I was in the studio rehearsing for a show that I was excited to perform. The day came and the day passed. And I was left with a comfortable feeling in my chest. It really wasn't that big of a deal. So, why did I freak out about turning 30?

The number one fear of every single dancer is that their career will end today. We know it will end, but we don't know when. How will I go? Will I get bored? Will I have a traumatic fall? Will my body start giving out? Will I get fired and not find another job? Or will I get to choose when I go and how I go? The reality of it all? Who knows. And while we are enjoying a career in a field that is nearly impossible to become a part of, more often than not, we are trying to put off the imminent end, one plie and day at a time. We have all heard stories of harsh endings to a promising career. Most of us professionals have stood behind a fellow dancer as they take their final bow. The end is almost always bittersweet, but more often bitter and less often sweet. With all of this said, the age 30 represents a lot to many dancers.

During the summer of 2003, I transitioned from student to professional. A week before I left home to start my career with Houston Ballet, I got some very wise advice from a teacher that had just left Miami City Ballet at the age of 24. She told me to stay away from negative dancers. Her advice continued, "There will always be dancers who bitch and complain about anything and everything. If you hang out with them, even if you feel positive about work, they will bring you down and, eventually, you may start to feel the same way." This was some of the most valuable advice I ever received. And with that advice, I set a goal for myself. I want my career to outlast her impressive, but short 6-year career. Once I hit 24, I had to set a new goal because I still felt I had a lot of time. After some thought, I decided that my next marker would be the age of 30. My mentor and childhood dance teacher danced until she was 30. It seemed an obvious age to strive and reach towards. Once I hit 30, I should feel content and successful. Right?

Dancing Mercutio at 26 w/ James Moore (Photo: Angela Sterling)
When I was 26 years old, I went in for my annual artistic evaluation with the director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter Boal. These contractually-obligated, yearly meetings are a time to get some feedback and to give some feedback. Peter asked me how old I was. When I said that I was 26, he nodded and smiled. "Yes. Yes. You have a few years left in you." All in all, I think Peter was trying to pay me a compliment. But immediately my insecurities about the imminent end of my career kicked in. What was he trying to say? In my vocabulary, few means 3. Did he just mark me with an
expiration date? How dare he say that. Is he going to fire me when I turn 30? At the beginning of the next season, I decided I would leave the company at the end of that season. There were a few other factors involved, but I honestly think that this one, simple comment stayed with me and was a major factor in my decision to go. I was sure that I would be pushed out of the company by the time I was 30, so I felt that I needed to leave to give myself a chance to continue dancing beyond that.

During my audition tour, I found a mixed bag of responses in my efforts to obtain a new job. I just spent 7 years dancing with one of the top companies in the country, where I had danced a handful of leading roles. Shouldn't everyone want to get a hold of me? What I found during my tour was that there is a lot more to hiring a dancer than their ability, potential, and/or notoriety. Older dancers are more experienced and they expect to be compensated for that time put in. We are more expensive. And, yes, I was an older dancer at the age of 27. Also, if a dancer goes to an AGMA company after already having danced for one, they can not be demoted. They must enter the company at the same or higher rank than they previously were with their former company. Beyond this, when a student is being hired into a company, they are, most often, hired purely on their potential. When a company contracts a more experienced dancer, they are less likely to hire a dancer for their potential and more likely to hire them if they know they are planning on moving them forward in the company. There are few mid-career dancers hired with the thought that they may be a valuable corps member or that they may have the potential to grow into a higher ranked dancer. For some of these reasons, it was very difficult for me to find a job as a middle-aged dancer.

Although I had a lot of disheartening realizations during my audition tour, there was one moment that really struck me. I have always been interested in the contemporary side of dance. One of my audition stops, which frightened me more than any other, was auditioning for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. This was way out of my comfort zone and knowledge of the dance world. After taking class for a few days and learning a bit of repertoire, I sat down to speak with the artistic director, Glenn Edgerton. Glenn told me that he saw a lot of potential in me and thought if I got more contemporary work under my belt and came back to audition, that I might be a good candidate for the company. Following this, he asked me the same question that had been posed to me a year prior, "How old are you?" I stated my age and Mr. Edgerton quickly responded, "Oh good. You still have plenty of time." I was taken aback. For the last year, I was convinced that my career would be dead by the age of 30. This conversation gave me hope then and it gives me hope today.

As we all know, soon after this audition tour, I took a job in Philadelphia, which eventually led to me freelancing full-time. I've discussed in previous blog posts that it can become easy to live in a state of fear that your career is coming to an end when freelancing. Mine has continued through my late twenties all of my own making. And it is wildly stressful and taxing. So, as my 30th birthday approached, I started to think. "Well, my goal was to dance until I am 30. And this past year was successful, but emotionally and financially straining. How much longer can I do this? Is this it? Is this the goal I'm reaching where there won't be a next goal?" This conversation started playing itself over and over again in my head. And it is a very dangerous conversation to be having. Fortunately and unfortunately, the conversation stopped when the clock hit October 14th and I entered into middle-aged/older-aged dancer territory.

What I have learned since that day is pretty obvious to everyone and everything that doesn't exist inside my head. Nothing has changed. I am still dancing. I still want to dance. I didn't hit 30 and know the exact date of the death of my dance career. I still take class every day. My body didn't instantaneously begin to fall apart like Cinderella's attire when the clock hit midnight. I still look for the next job. I still have hopes, dreams, and aspirations as a dancer. I do feel a bit wiser and that I can truly share that wisdom based off of experience. I think it is best to say I am a more experienced dancer than an older one. I know that full-time freelancing needs to slowly turn into part-time freelancing, as I really miss having a sense of home, focus, and regularity. But that doesn't mean that my career is slowing down. It just means that it needs to focus back into company/long-term gig work (maybe Broadway). But the most interesting realization I have had is this. While I have always been a person to set a marker to reach, I haven't this time around. I don't want to worry about working towards dancing until I'm 40. If I reach that goal, I will feel successful. But if I don't, I will likely be disappointed. I would love it if I'm still healthy, happy, and dancing professionally at 40. But this time around, I don't need to set another goal to feel successful if I reach it. I have been successful and I am successful at what I do and love.

With all of this said, I leave my readers with this amazing quote from Houston Ballet's former physical therapist, Cody Brazos. One of the dancers in the company broke her foot in class after landing awry in a saut de chat. While crying in pain and panicking that her career was ending, Cody calmly looked this dancer in the eyes and said, "There is no timeline to a dance career."

There is life in dance after 30 (w/Ellen Green after the launch of Barak Ballet)

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts on the arbitrariness of age, Barry. I know that dance careers are short because, contrary to popular understanding, dancers are actually athletes and subject their bodies to the same stresses and strains pro athletes do - and thus risk the same infirmities and have similarly short careers, the main difference being that dancers don't get paid enough to stash a huge bankroll for their long retirements the way pro sports players do (but squander them all too often anyway).

    Still, no one ever told a football or baseball player they had to quit at 30. Just as we who strain our brains should be able to keep at what we love as long as our brains can handle it, those like you who enjoy pushing their bodies to their limits should be allowed to do so until their bodies say "Stop," not until someone else draws a line for them.