After the dance – what happens next?

Sergei Polunin (pictured performing at Sadler's Wells in 2012) has said he intends to retire at 28. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
by -

Dancers have notoriously short careers. Usually, retirement comes around age 35, with a select few (Sylvie Guillem, Leanne Benjamin etc) continuing to perform into their late 40s.

There are a few notable career progressions for professional dancers – teaching or choreography are the most obvious, with many dancers pursuing training in alternative physical forms such as pilates, yoga, klein technique or physiotherapy.

The lucky few get to go on and have alternative careers in TV (Darcey Bussell) or book writing (Deborah Bull) and some even get cameo parts in Sex And The City (Mikhail Baryshnikov). It’s a common myth that ballet dancers either marry into money and live fabulous lifestyles soaking their tired toes in buckets of champagne on ice, or they spend their days saving pennies for much needed hip/knee replacements.

But it must be daunting for those who have spent their life on a stage to suddenly up and retrain in a whole new area. So either they take a job in the world they know best – the theatre – or they… get sent to the glue factory?

Actually, because of their physical discipline, dancers are generally much fitter and physically able than us mere mortals. Many of them continue with dance in some way, whether it be zumba in the gym, or outreach in the community, rock climbing or running.

[pullquote]Dancers have a lot of transferable skills[/pullquote]

And dancers have a lot of transferable skills. They are fast learners, hard workers and always come prepared. Ballet’s most quotable boy, Sergei Polunin, who famously said: "I want to retire when I'm 28", seems to think that the world’s his oyster post-ballet, going on: “Maybe I’ll become the youngest ever director of a big dance company. Or maybe I’ll go into politics. I could be Russia’s youngest president.” In fairness, he’s spouted a fair amount of claptrap in his time, but he’s not far off in thinking that dancers are capable of pretty much anything.

Theoretically, dancers would make amazing law students with their hard-working attitude, confidence, single mindedness and determination; they’d be fabulous sales people with their competitiveness, self-motivation and dedication; they’d be wonderful school teachers with their motivation, resilience and spirit and great in any profession that requires discipline, perfectionism and collaboration.

In the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recent summer news bulletin, the company said goodbye to a number of dancers and their farewell note was a case in point. Ambra Vallo, a principal who leaves the company after 17 years, is off to pursue a career as a yoga instructor. First soloist Victoria Marr is now a business woman and co-founder of www.sleektechnique.com; Kirsten McGarrity, an artist with the BRB is chasing her dream of being a singer-songwriter and Laura Davenport, also an artist, is off to train in midwifery. It’s a pretty impressive range.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet was actually the first company to provide opportunities for its dancers to study in further education while continuing to perform – a course that’s also offered by the San Francisco Ballet. The MA course is programmed around dancers’ performing schedules and is accredited by the University of Birmingham.

It’s a great way of ensuring post-ballet career diversity and avoiding the knackers yard (just jokes) – look out parliament, here come the dancers. Hell’s bells, it’s not that far fetched an idea, it’s already run by circus clowns...