A Little Death- When “Dance Identified” what happens when it’s time to Retire?

Mental Health Specialist Cortnay Veazey gives us “A Little Death” which talks about how to avoid some of the painful pitfalls when it’s time to face the final curtain, or when injury knocks you out of the game for a while. As dancers, or even as family members and friends of dancers we know (and maybe have become collateral damage to) the myopic mind set and lifestyle of the dance world. Not to get all Black Swan on you but to become a professional dancer (in any genre, on any level) takes a great deal of sacrifice, and while you are in it, because you are loving what you’re doing it doesn’t feel that way, but sometimes on the back end you come realize that there is a great deal that you missed out on. It is akin to what you here child stars talk about, missing out on their childhoods. Where it might not be THAT extreme, there are things that must take a back seat. For instance I started dancing at the age of 3, and dance professionally at 13 with a regional company, I loved what I was doing and I was dedicated and focused, but  because of the amount of time I spent in the studio I can barely ride a bike, I don’t rollerskate, ice skate, or ski, for fear of injury and lack of down time. I stopped swimming and running track on school teams for fear of building the wrong muscles, and gave up the violin because there weren’t enough hours in the day after dance to do homework and practice. These may seem like small things, but in a sense my inability to experience these seemingly insignificant things at crucial developmental stages might have shipped away at the person I would have become had I the chance to engage in them.

When I stopped dancing (the first time- there were a couple of retirement dry runs) I was only 23, and was fascinated by the prospect of being and living like a normal person- no more sewing pointe shoes, aches and pains, and ice, no more having to end my weekend early so that Monday I could be rested for a full rehearsal day. AND AND AND I could eat what ever I wanted, no dieting (unless I wanted to) I could eat drink and party with relative impunity.  AND I DID! That was the first time, I went back to dancing a year or so later and only loosely reentered the world (project to project- after being set loose in the world there was no going back completely) the second time I “retired”, I was fully prepared, but only because of my early jail break. This is a truly important topic, and though it does not seem directly related to your body—your mind and your mental health are the cornerstone of your perception of self… read, learn and enjoy!

A Little Death- When “Dance Identified” what happens when it’s time to Retire?

Courtnay Veazey

It’s been seven years since I’ve consistently taken ballet classes, yet I still identify myself as a dancer, a bunhead, a ballerina, a terpsichorean, a lover of movement. However, this identification has lost its influence as other aspects of my post-performing identity have matured and blossomed. Identifying yourself as a dancer has its pros and cons. Pros include an intimate connection with your body, an automatic link to a tight-knit community, a spirit of intense dedication, and the joys of performing. Cons usually occur during times of transition, such as injury, realizing that you will not become a professional dancer, or retirement. All of those transitions deal with a loss, and as with any other loss in your life, you will grieve and feel heartbroken. To illustrate these powerful emotions of loss and grief felt by transitioning dancers, Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director for the American Ballet Theatre, said, “The retiring dancer and heartbroken lover are never more alike than when their relationships end” (Jeffri, 2005, p. 341).


I felt lost, confused, and grieved my senior year of high school when I realized that I would no longer be spending at least 15 hours a week in the ballet studio – my haven. I cried throughout my entire warm-up class before my final performance with the Ballet Memphis Junior Company. I knew that part of my identity was dying, but I chose to recognize that this loss would leave room for growth and new opportunities in my life. Ironically, the work ethic and dedication I learned from ballet would help me overcome the loss of ballet as my predominant self-identifier.


One of the most difficult times of transition a professional dancer will face is retirement – especially since it usually occurs at a young age. Most dancers end their careers before the age of 40. According to Pickman (1987), dancers “face retirement from dance with little knowledge or formal preparation for other careers” (p. 200). Along with lack of preparation regarding their transition, retiring dancers experience strong emotions, such as anger, frustration, depression, fear, and grief (Doerr, 1995; Jeffri, 2005; Pickman, 1987; van Staden, Myburgh, & Poggenpoel, 2009). An international survey conducted in 2000 by Columbia University’s Research Center for Arts and Culture confirmed “the common notion that the end of a career in dance is ‘one of life’s little deaths’ that dancers often say they must mourn the loss of before they can continue in another career” (Jeffri, 2005, p. 346). This same survey also confirmed that dancers feel more satisfied in their post-retirement careers if they fully prepare themselves for retirement compared to those dancers who do not prepare themselves (Jeffri, 2005).


South African researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with professional ballet dancers and discovered that retiring dancers usually do not view retirement as a growth opportunity (van Staden et al., 2009). They become intimately connected with the grief aspect of this transition and the fear that normally comes with a change and forget about the growth aspect and the talents and skills they have to offer. Also, upon retirement, dancers experience exclusion and self-doubt as a result of finding “themselves in competition with other ‘normal’ people, who are usually in the middle of their careers or even picking up the results of an already established career” (Roncaglia, 2006, p. 184; Drahota & Eitzen, 1995).


Feelings of being unprepared and feelings of anger, frustration, depression, fear, grief, loneliness, and self-doubt can be overcome by processing those emotions with a mentor and/or a counselor. Thankfully, the dance community recognizes this need for support and encouragement, and a wonderful organization exists specifically for dancers facing career transitions. This organization is Career Transition for Dancers.


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