The emotional trauma experienced by dancers facing the end of their career can be as profound as any physical change, and building a life after retirement can seem like a daunting prospect. Daphné Leprince-Ringuet talks to former dancers and those helping them to prepare for life after the stage about the challenges and rewards
When he talks about his next project, a duet exploring the notion of age in dance, choreographer Mark Biocca says: “Dance is supposed to be for young, beautiful, naked people. But that’s one part – it’s not all of it.” Biocca describes himself as a freelance, working somewhere between teaching, dancing and choreographing. Just a few years ago, however, he was pirouetting from one European stage to the next, dancing with prestigious companies including the Northern Ballet, the National Ballet of Portugal and the Hungarian National Ballet.
At the age of 30, Biocca suffered a back injury that paralysed him for two weeks. He knew then that it was time to think about what came next. “I hadn’t worked in the UK for long enough to be eligible for retraining grants,” he says. “So I applied for the IOTPD grant.”
The International Organization for the Transition of Professional Dancers’ grant is designed to help dancers retrain for a new profession when they have had international careers and don’t quality for support from any one of the countries in which they have danced.
‘Dance is supposed to be for young, beautiful, naked people. But that’s one part – it’s not all of it’ – choreographer Mark Biocca
Last week, it was awarded to Spanish dancer Javier Murugarren, to retrain in the Segni Mossi methodology, and to Irish dancer Aoife McAtamney, to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter. Both candidates will receive a one-off sum of €3,000 – and while that may not seem like enough, it is a good start for dancers who often have little savings to push them into the next stage of their careers.
A survey conducted by website Dancers Pro (now Mandy Dancers) in 2015 showed that about 50% of dancers’ jobs paid less than the minimum wage. And in a profession where the average age of retirement stands between 30 and 40 years old, preparing for life after the stage is no easy task.
In 2017, Biocca used the grant to retrain in Gyrotonic exercise. “The cost of my training was almost double what I received, but any grant is helpful,” he says. “As a dancer, you save little bits, but you can’t suddenly retrain by yourself.”
But some dancers have to. Sitting in his dance studio tucked away in Shadwell, east London, dance teacher Angelo Ruggieri says: “I taught myself how to do it all.” Ruggieri performed as a principal and soloist on European stages for more than 12 years. At 30 years old, the strain on his body got too much, and he decided to open his own dance school in the UK.
“It felt like having to learn everything from the start – accounting, marketing, managing the website,” he says. “I knew exactly what I was selling, but I had no clue how to.”
The real difficulty, however, was emotional. That is a challenge that he still copes with today, he admits, mentioning his “stupid thoughts” – the idea that a dancer stops being a dancer when they leave the stage.
He reaches for a shelf and pulls out a picture from 13 years ago. Standing on the stage of the Teatro Bellini in Naples, he is saluting the crowd at the end of a performance of Les Sylphides. “To stop feels like a humiliation,” he says. “And your body changes – it is not as strong or beautiful as before.”
Ruggieri’s “stupid thoughts” are nothing out of the ordinary. Sport and exercise psychologist Irina Roncaglia explains that the emotional trauma experienced by dancers who face the end of their career is as profound, if not more, than the physical change.
‘To stop feels like a humiliation. And your body changes – it is not as strong or beautiful as before’ – dance teacher Angelo Ruggieri
Her research on this emotional transition – The Ballet Dancing Profession: A Career Transition Model – shows that when dancers retire from the stage, they undergo a process that resembles bereavement; with all the feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and nostalgia that this involves.
“Many dancers have discovered themselves within the context of being a dancer,” she says. “Performing on stage is, for many, a way of being. So there is a significant loss of identity.”
Ruggieri started dancing when he was seven years old. He remembers setting up shows in his parents’ garage in Palermo, Sicily, and getting his friends to pay a few lire to watch. Needless to say, performance is almost part of his DNA.
What makes performing so special? Ruggieri pauses before carefully answering: “It’s absolutely emotional. I can cry, or smash myself to the floor, and I know the audience will like it. They need the emotion and I am desperate to release it.” Karate, kung fu, rowing, boxing: he tried them all, but nothing came close to the thrill of dancing on stage. He even attended university, he laughs, but quickly dropped out.
When a profession is so intrinsically tied to an individual’s identity, therefore, building a life after retirement can be a scary prospect – particularly when doubting that anything will ever compare to the past.
But as natural as those doubts are, dancers shouldn’t worry, says Nancy Liiv, dancer’s support officer at Dancers’ Career Development in London. “Some dancers have even found careers that excite them even more,” she says.
‘It is important for dancers to know that they are not starting from scratch’ – Nancy Liiv, Dancers’ Career Development
Founded in 1973, DCD provides career retraining support to dancers from the charity’s partner companies. It has now evolved to support independent dancers as well. Its support is not only financial, in the form of grants; it also provides psychological guidance with one-to-one support, career coaching, networking and more.
Liiv says dancers often reach out when seeking more stability in their lives. “It is important for dancers to know that they are not starting from scratch,” she says.“In fact, they could transfer to pretty much anything. But they struggle to see that they have built so many transferable skills such as dedication, time management or communication.”
About half of the dancers she has helped have gone into a creative industry, but the other half started radically new careers – off the top of her head, Liiv cites helicopter pilots, lawyers, plumbers, florists and dog groomers.
Last year, the charity reached almost 1,000 professional dancers. One of those is Neus Gil Cortés, a former dancer from the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company. Remembering her work with Shechter, she says: “Artistically, it felt like falling in love with somebody. It was really intense. And when it’s over, you’re not sure you’ll ever have that again.”
When she decided it was time to move on to the next step of her career, Gil Cortés turned to DCD. She liked choreographing, and she was a confident dancer. “But I needed help to cope with starting from zero when I was 30-something,” she says.
Working with a DCD life coach, she retrained as a choreographer and dramaturg. Perhaps more importantly, she realised that she could fall in love with her new job, too. “I don’t miss performing,” she says. “I get more of a thrill when I see my creation on stage, rather than when I perform myself.”
She mentions a couple of her friends who had a harder time transitioning. The reason for that, she says, might be that some dancers think that they are only interested in dance, when in reality that’s not always the case. “If they can find something that they can be playful about,” she adds, “if they can channel that creativity into something else – with the amount of transferable skills they have built – they can do great things.”