The "R" Word - Retirement

The Nutcracker (Photo: Ruth Judson)
There really are few careers out there that are as strikingly unique as a performance career in dance. Those of us lucky enough to dance for a living chose our career path somewhere between the age of teen and tween. Plenty of my peers and colleagues left middle or high school early to attend a boarding school or finished their academics online. From the lifestyle required to maintain the elite level of an athletic artist to the odd set of job requirements, there is nothing normal about the life of a dance artist. One of the most defining aspects of our careers is a word that begins with the letter "R" and is a word almost as dangerous as the name Voldemort. Like many of the most beautiful things in our world, a dance career shines brightly and quickly, then usually fades as fast as a falling star. Like putting together a last will and testament, talking about retirement feels like a daunting task. But at some point, every successful dancer will retire. And only in the rarest instances will this retirement lead one into the sunset of their lives.

Martha Graham was once quoted as saying, "A dancer dies twice." I can tell you from experience that this is one of the most credible statements that has ever been spoken about the pathway a dancer takes as they end their performance career and transition forward into the next stage of their lives. I have been told that one of my most defining attributes as a writer is my level of candor in talking about the realities of our wonderful dance world. But I don't feel that I have been completely candid about where I am as an artist today. And I finally feel that I am ready to change that.

If you have shared the journey of Life of a Freelance Dancer, you have walked hand-in-hand with me from the commencement of my career as a freelance artist. If you look back to 2014, where I posted about dealing with injury and working my way back from burn out, it was quite clear that I was working through a difficult period of my performance career. I had been traveling non-stop for 4 seasons and felt that I was beginning to forget who I was at my core. While I recovered from injury and worked to figure out how I ended up so emotionally lost, I took a job with Alaska Dance Theatre, created my own choreography project, and began working to transition my career to New York City. While I spent a great amount of time giving myself technique class at the gym and dropping in to take classes from other instructors, my performance career remained on hiatus. And, for the longest time, I didn't even know why.

Throughout this period, there were a handful of times that I found myself giving awkward explanations about the state of my career. I've been lucky enough that this blog has given me a great deal of credibility and has offered me visibility to other artists in my field. I've been approached a handful of times for work through this blog or in person from those who have read it. I felt awkward turning down these kind offers, as my persona has become understood as that of a highly sought, successful performer.

But more difficult than turning down the work was trying to find the words to explain why I was turning it down. More often than not, I would offer to pass jobs on to my peers because I didn't feel I was in appropriate shape to take on a performance at that moment. But in all honestly, I just wasn't able to bring myself to get back into a rehearsal studio.

Often, I would find myself at social events and people would ask me what I did for a living. My natural response was that I was a dancer. But as my choreography, teaching, and media career started to take off, I found myself in an awkward situation where a friend corrected me mid-conversation about my position. Sipping a glass of wine after telling a party-goer that I was a dancer, this friend interrupted me and stated, "Actually, he is a choreographer. He isn't performing anymore." I sheepishly smiled at this person and nodded my head, but what they couldn't recognize was the rush of adrenaline flooding my body. That rushing of natural chemicals flowing through my veins mimicked the feeling you might get when you receive extremely bad news; like finding out about an illness or a death. In that very moment, I was forced to come to terms with the creeping, slow death of my performance career. My body's reaction reinforced the statement I posted earlier about the death of a dancer. A dancer dies once when their career is over and again when the person passes on.

Now, I know that I was deeply affected by this experience. But like many occasions when you receive bad news, you go into denial or silently acknowledge the issue while maintaining a certain level of public mum surrounding the item. After toying around with the idea that I may be officially retiring from my performance career for many months, I finally decided to work on transitioning my career base to New York City. This transition has finally allowed me to come to terms with what I am trying to tell you. Once I finally started getting into Nancy Bielski's class on a regular basis, I began to feel my body returning to it's normal ballet shape. While I still had aches and pains from the devastating injury I experienced dancing with Oakland Ballet, I was able to maintain my body and return to class daily. A few more offers for work came to me and I graciously turned those offers down. As you also know, I've been given a handful of teaching opportunities during this time, as well. Whether at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, or teaching master classes across the country, I have found a great deal of excitement and growth in this facet of my career. With the addition of having my choreography sought out more and seeing my media work from my blog and podcast explode, things started to become clearer and clearer.

I don't know exactly when it happened and I don't know how it happened, but in the past few months I have finally been able to say it. And maybe the reason I hadn't been able to say it was because I didn't want to admit to myself that I had already moved on. Or maybe it was because it is the only thing I have ever known since I was a young child. And while I have finally admitted it to myself and in private conversation, I still feel slightly choked up writing this post to share what this experience is like for me and may be like for you. And I promise you it's coming. And it's coming right now. I am officially retired from my performance career (and my heart is racing just typing this).

The Nutcracker (Photo: J-Ro)
Alrighty. Now that those words are out there, I'd like to elaborate a little more before signing off from this post. I have not been retired from my performance career since 2014. I really only started toying around with the idea at the beginning of 2016. I had dreams of making this big comeback. I had dreams of maybe joining a Broadway show. I had dreams of performing with Suzanne Farrell Ballet and getting to dance a Balanchine work one more time. I continued to dream of sharing my love of dance from the stage. But with the growth of my media work, the greatly positive feedback for my teaching, and the interest in my choreography, I had to give myself a bit of a reality check. I have accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish in my performance career. I danced with two of the best ballet companies in the country in some of the greatest works by the greatest choreographers with live music in every production. Then, I self-managed a traveling career across the country performing on stages large and small. I received some level of recognition and notoriety and I feel pleased with all of that. While I feel that I could push through for another year or two, I feel that I reached my peak and will only be maintaining the same level of work that I had been doing when I became injured in 2014. At the young age of 32, I feel that if I focus my work on choreographing, teaching, and sharing my voice with the world that I can do much, much greater things and with a head start. I may perform here and there on occasions that really inspire me (coming out of retirement a la Barbara Streisand). But for the most part, I'm looking forward to focusing on my growing work and continuing to offer my advice and experiences as a freelance choreographer, educator, and dancer here on this blog. As, even in retirement, I will continue to take class and maintain being a dancer off the stage.

Going through the process of finding the strength to use the "R" word, I feel that I did go through a grieving process. I didn't have a big retirement performance to let fans fawn all over me or to gain closure. There was no exact day I can look back to for the rest of my life to call the anniversary of my retirement. But over the last few months, I suddenly became comfortable with responding to my peers and curious acquaintances questions by proudly stating, "I am a choreographer, dance educator, and advocate for the dance world through my media work." I feel that any dancer working towards or going through retirement can benefit from having something to look forward to, no matter how exciting or mundane. So, when you find yourself approaching this new life of yours, remember this. While we may no longer be on the stage to share our gifts with audiences small and large, we will always be dancers. A dancer may die two deaths, but that doesn't mean they live two lives.

(As I enter this new stage of my career, if any readers are ever interested in booking me for choreography, master classes in ballet or contemporary technique, or for speaking engagements, you are always welcome to reach me on my contact page by clicking here. I am available for local, national, and international work).

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