Life After Dance

Published on 09/03/2019

The esteemed dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham once said “A dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful”. For professional dancers at the very pinnacle of their careers, the sudden loss of all they have worked for can be both daunting and difficult. Whether the decision to stop dancing is precipitated by a sudden medical issue or is a gentler transition, it can be a very humbling experience to have start from scratch in your mid to late 30’s or early 40’s if lucky. A professional dance career last approximately 10 to 15 years which results in dancers retiring from the stage with a good portion of their working lives ahead of them. 

There are many skills that you learn as a dancer that can set you up well for a future career. Michelle Dursun spoke to a number of ex-professional dancers who have successfully navigated the transition to a new career and discovered that there are many transferable skills and abilities which they have channelled from their lives as dancers into their second careers.

Ben Davis, former Soloist with The Australian Ballet, now a freelance makeup artist.

M.D. How did you make the transition to your new career?

B.D. Makeup was already a big part of my dance career. Getting ready for a show each night was oddly just as enjoyable to me as performing on stage. Moving into the makeup industry post ballet just seemed like a natural progression. In 2013 I completed a Diploma of Specialist Makeup Services whilst still performing with the AB. From there I sourced as much makeup work as my performance schedule allowed, hoping to do a lot of the ground work before finally hanging up my tights just before Christmas last year. I was very fortunate during that time to meet a lot of people connected with makeup, fashion, photography, etc. which has been invaluable getting my foot in the door.

M.D. What have been the challenges of transitioning from a career as a dancer to your new profession?

B.D. The early starts! I’ve seen 4:00am a lot since transitioning to makeup artistry. In the ballet world I was very used to an 11am to 11pm schedule, so switching the night owl lifestyle for the early bird has probably been the biggest challenge. Another challenge working freelance is the unknown. As a dancer I knew my performing schedule at least 14 months in advance. Now I’m working week to week, sometimes being booked a day or two beforehand. That kind of freedom in many ways is extremely exciting, but scary some weeks too.

M.D. How have your skills as a dancer helped you in your new career?

B.D. Being on stage eight performances a week teaches you a thing or two about dealing with stress. I’m still fairly new in the makeup industry and on occasion get nervous. The old performer in me says “curtain up” and I’m able to channel that nervous energy to get on with the job at hand. Whether it be photo shoots, filming, runways, whatever the scenario, I know I can get through because for decades I did long hours standing on one leg…..whilst being looked at…..and wearing lycra. Now I have the luxury of wearing pants to work!   

I think most dancers fear the skills they possess aren’t transferable into a career unrelated to dance. But most dancers are naturally driven and hard working. Have an eye for detail. The ability to pick up information quickly and retain it. Remain calm under pressure. Deal with big personalities and perform well when fatigued. All positive attributes in any line of work. Our joints may be a little stiff first thing in the morning, but we have a great work ethic.

Janet Karin OAM, former dancer with the Victorian Ballet Guild, Borovansky Ballet and founding member of the Australian Ballet, now a researcher, writer, reviewer and presenter.  

M.D. How did you make the transition to your new career?

J.K. Teaching had always been my goal (after dancing) and I had teacher- training before becoming a professional dancer so, after retiring from the Australian Ballet, I transitioned to ballet teaching. While running a large ballet school and youth company, I also became involved in education and cultural development. In line with these interests, I returned to the Australian Ballet to assist the Artistic Director, Ross Stretton, then moved to the Australian Ballet School as Kinetic Educator. There, I became interested in research, presenting and writing. Finally,
I decided to focus entirely on these interests. 

M.D. What have been the challenges of transitioning from a career as a dancer to your new profession?

J.K. Basically, none. I loved every minute of my dancing career but I had already developed a love of and experience in teaching so the transition was exciting and fulfilling. During my teaching years I broadened my interests as far as possible, and this led me seamlessly to my next two transitions. My most recent transition to a freelance career has been easy – I can devote myself fulltime to the possibilities that most interest me. 

M.D. How have your skills as a dancer helped you in your new career?

J.K. Working with amazing dancers and choreographers, and touring regionally as well as nationally and internationally, gave me ample opportunity to develop my curiosity and my interest in cultural issues and the arts. I am not sure whether dancing professionally helps you to develop a creative mindset, or whether those with creative mindsets are drawn to ballet, but I do see a continuity from my teenage passion for science, literature and the arts through my career. Imagination, tenacity and ingenuity are all important for dancers, and they can also be the basis for a rich and varied life, both career-wise and personally.

Sergey Pevnev, former dancer with Eifman Contemporary Ballet, Kirov Ballet, Konstantin Tatchkine Saint Petersburg Ballet Theatre and Leading Artist with the West Australian Ballet, now Director of Pevnev Ballet Academy in Western Australia.   

M.D. How did you make the transition to your new career?

S.P. A couple of years before retiring from WA Ballet I was approached by few local dance schools to teach open classes as well as some students asking for private coaching. It’s then that I felt that’s what I would love to do after retiring. However the more I coached the more I realised that I was correcting their old mistakes/bad habits rather than teaching new skills. From that moment I had a strong idea of having my own school and starting from the scratch.   

M.D. What have been the challenges of transitioning from a career as a dancer to your new profession?

S.P. The transition from a dancer to a teacher was a breeze for me. In my final year of my retirement I was teaching intensively around Perth in many local dance schools. I knew what I wanted to do as soon as I retired. There was a perfect chance and timing, one of the dance schools was for sale, so I didn't hesitate a second. Together with my wife Fiona Pevneva (ex-principal WA Ballet) we bought the dance school. She is great teacher in our academy as well as fantastic mum to our three beautiful daughters.

M.D. How have your skills as a dancer helped you in your new career?

S.P. Discipline and focus are very important skills which helped me to transfer to a teaching career. The most valuable thing is the love of dance which makes me go to teach every day, inspire my students and pass my knowledge and passion to their souls and bodies.

When a dancer has control over their retirement from the stage, the transition can be gentler; more gradual and much easier to accept than if retirement is forced on them due to injury. William Long reflects on the grief experienced through the loss of a loved dance career and the challenges of moving on to a new phase in life. 

William Long, former dancer with the London Festival Ballet, Northern Ballet and Principal Dancer with the Scottish Ballet, now Director of Longshots Photography and one of Australia’s leading professional photographers across a range of genres including Commercial, Architecture, Illustrative and Portraiture. 

M.D. How did you make the transition to your new career?

W.L. My back had been playing up for a couple of years and I had delayed surgery to continue dancing. When I was finally diagnosed with 3 slipped disks and the pain became excruciating, I decided to have surgery with the goal of rehabilitating for a period of time and taking on character roles in the lead up to resuming my Principal Dancer duties. However, changes in management at the company over the ensuing time and a lack of support resulted in the end of my dance
career and the loss was profound. 

Photography had been a hobby all through my performing career. I was frustrated with the images that were being taken of the dancers and the company. Professional photographers just could not get their timing right. So I started taking my camera to rehearsals and developing images in a makeshift darkroom I had set up at home. I then sold the prints, sometimes making £25 for a 10 x 8 image (half my weekly wage). When the company toured to Paris, we were dancing with Rudolph Nureyev and Natalia Makarova and after rehearsals were over I would rush to the pharmacy to get the images developed. They both bought images from me. Soon I was taking all the company headshots and was receiving referrals to the Scottish Opera and Symphony Orchestra.

M.D. What have been the challenges of transitioning from a career as a dancer to your new profession? 

W.L. In the early days, the sense of grief for what had been lost was overwhelming. When you’ve taken ballet class every day since you were 7 years old, to suddenly not have this as a part of your daily life was very difficult. However it was not only the loss of routine which was difficult, I also felt deeply the absence of the company itself as the dancers had become my family as well as and the loss of creative expression and my self-identity. Without any preparation for life after dance and with no psychological support, I was left to my own devises. I became a gym-junkie to fill the physical void and took on work with Glasgow Mayfair Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Glasgow 1990 European City of Culture and was the Marketing Officer with Tramway for a number of years. I dabbled in modelling and was an extra in the TV show Taggart and in the movie, Take the High Road. I also continued with photography work on the side. It was not until I moved to Brisbane that I realised I could pursue photography fulltime.  

M.D. How have your skills as a dancer helped you in your new career?

W.L. In my career as a dancer, I had been around sets and lighting all my life and I realised how useful it was to know how light was produced and how to light a subject. I had also worked in studios all my life and could apply a creative approach to my photography work. Mindsets I’d developed as a dancer such as discipline, determination and drive served me well in my photography work. The importance of practice is ingrained in dancers, it’s what their whole world revolves around – so this I applied to my work as a photographer to continually improve and strive for excellence. 

Professional ballet companies around the world, including The Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company now have programs in place that support dancers making the transition to a new career. Such support includes financial, emotional and counselling programs as well as assistance with education and retraining.


Written by Michelle Dursun
Writer for Dance Australia Magazine

Featured images;
Ben Davis, Photo Credit: James Braund
Janet Karin, Photo Credit: David Cartier
Sergey Pevnev
William Long as the Prince in the 1986 Scottish Ballet production of Cinderella, Photo Credit: Bill Cooper

  • Life After Dance