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Pivot Pointe
March 6, 2023

Career Transition With Emma White

Self-employed Pilates Instructor

Emma White is originally from New Zealand and discovered the benefits of Pilates while training as a young classical ballet and contemporary dancer before dancing professionally with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. As a dancer with scoliosis in a career that demands a high amount of physicality, she recognized the potential to prevent and aid injury while conditioning the body to maintain a balanced musculature. Although now having moved on from dance, Pilates continues to be a part of her life.

Educated in New Zealand and the UK, Emma has worked with diverse clients with varying goals and conditions, clocking up to 6000 hours of teaching around London. She loves sharing her knowledge with the clients and helping them integrate movement into their everyday lives.

We asked Emma to reflect upon her career transition.

What steps did you take after retiring from the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB)?

Emma White: After my time with the RNZB, I must have been in my early twenties and needed a clean break from the industry, having spent most of my childhood training intensively. Looking back, I struggled emotionally with the pressure and demands of what being a professional dancer entails and hadn’t developed an identity outside of the ballet studio. I hadn't quite matured into myself and didn’t yet have any passions or interests outside of the studio, but I had a hunger to experience the world in other forms.

When you've been spoonfed ballet your whole life, you can’t always focus on anything else, so I took some needed time off and spent a year in Auckland with my family, then decided to move overseas. I bought a one-way ticket to London and started my next chapter there. I couldn’t be happier where I am now, having built my life here teaching around London.

At the time, I thought that ballet was the only career pathway out there, and although I probably could have danced elsewhere, I hadn’t built that resilience and lost the momentum and grit that you need to have to succeed. I think it's really important to have a strong support system behind you when moments get tough, otherwise, it’s easy to buckle under pressure—in ballet, but also in life in general.

Was Pilates always on the map for your career transition?

Emma: Honestly, no. I got approached to teach at a small studio in New Zealand and trained young aspiring dancers. And as a young dancer myself, I attended Pilates sessions purely because I was told it complimented ballet training, but it was never the main focus like ballet was. I always enjoyed it but never quite grasped the deep understanding of ‘how’ movements of the body can tie into and help with executing certain ballet steps. Now that I have a greater understanding of the body, I can appreciate the craft and method as more than just a conditioning tool for dancers.

There were only a handful of small studios scattered around NZ a few years ago, so I’m not exactly sure how the industry has progressed there. In London, there is a strong fitness scene with many smaller and more commercialized larger studios that offer Pilates. Corporate companies often have wellness schemes where instructors teach employees how to stay active and healthy, and lifestyle/fitness brands often offer community classes to those who don’t have the means to attend classes at studios. So there is a lot out there for career options and progression.

Photo by Alex Fine

It’s no surprise that pilates has become the default career transition for dancers. Do you recommend such a pathway?

Emma: It seems to be a natural transition for many dancers as we all spent so many years perfecting how to move our bodies, and a waste to throw away all that training. I think dancers take their knowledge of the body for granted and forget that the general public doesn’t always have the privilege of knowing how to hold their bodies upright with good posture or how to breathe properly. They really appreciate a dancer's viewpoint and expertise.

What I love about teaching Pilates is the ability to help someone on their journey to nurture their bodies, look after themselves and rehabilitate from injuries if needed. Personally, the only downside is that it tends to be a job where you expend a lot of energy helping others, and it can be easy to forget to carve out some time for yourself. But once you become established, you can choose your clients and schedule. That's the beauty of being self-employed and working for yourself!

Pilates has become more accessible and mainstream in the past couple of years, which is great! However, there seems to be a bit of a divide in the industry between the traditional classical style and the more commercial side, where the repertoire is more of a hybrid-pilates with an emphasis on having a great time. Both are important!

Let’s talk Pilates certifications. I understand there are different tiers, costs, and timelines associated. What do you recommend for those interested in building a Pilates business?

Emma: Pilates has become more accessible and mainstream in the past couple of years, which is great! However, there seems to be a bit of a divide in the industry between the traditional classical style and the more commercial side, where the repertoire is more of a hybrid-pilates with an emphasis on having a great time. Both are important!

I was trained in the traditional Pilates method, and my certification is recognized at many studios worldwide, which is why I chose to get certified with them. Not all of them are well known or stay true to the classical Pilates method, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I would advise anyone to do research and attend a variety of classes with different instructors and studios to see what style they resonate with. Although I don’t always teach how I trained, I think it gave me a great foundation to work with. After all, you can always put your own spin on your classes by layering in different techniques and styles, playing your music of choice, and showcasing your personality. There’s no need to conform to one way of teaching.

I guess the biggest mystery and issue around scaling as a Pilates instructor is how to build a consistent clientele. Do you have any tips?

Emma: I am lucky in London as it’s almost a playground for adults with endless job opportunities around every corner. I started working at a small Pilates studio and worked with someone who gave me a lot of creative leeway and autonomy over how I structure and teach my classes. Not all studios operate like that and expect you to follow a very rigid structure of their own. From there, I worked at numerous other studios and now teach for a studio I love, as well fitness brands and corporate companies.

With the exposure from teaching classes to the general public, I managed to build a loyal client base where many turned into private clients. If you have a few clients with whom you have a great relationship, they will attend sessions two or three times a week, where you can follow them consistently on their wellness journey, which is very fulfilling.

Personal training or 1-on-1 Pilates is a very personal experience, and you will have clients who are at the start of their fitness journey who will feel very vulnerable and nervous to start working with a trainer, and therefore, it’s important to build trust with your client as they are essentially putting their health into your hands. As for teaching groups, it is a whole other ball game, especially with so many different personalities, it’s impossible to connect and please every person in the room. At some studios that I have taught at, I found myself adapting to the room, trying to please everyone, which wasn’t possible, and over time found that it was just too exhausting, and it took a toll on my energy levels. Now I stay true to who I am and how I teach and notice that people who resonate with my style are the ones that continue to come back to class. It's almost like dating; just as much as you seek clients, they will also seek you. They will value you for what you have to offer them, so don't be afraid to stay true to yourself and know your worth.

Also, don't underestimate the power of social media. You need to market yourself as an instructor and get your presence and skills known. People like knowing you are a person as well, and humanizing yourself can make people relate to you on a personal level. You may also find that some may approach you by messaging you informally on Instagram.

There have also been times when I've had a consultation with a potential client and had to refer them to another trainer, as what they were looking for in a trainer was out of my scope of expertise. I think it’s important not be greedy and know your limitations for what you can offer them. For example, if someone has just given birth and has postnatal complications, refer them to someone else who can help them best instead of taking on a client for the sake of having another client.

On the business front, don’t be afraid to charge what you're worth. When you're first starting out, it will seem like you need to take on any and every job possible with low pay, as it’s common to be in a scarcity mindset with the instability of being self-employed and not wanting to be out of work. But then you end up taking 20 classes on top of clients, and you won’t have any time for yourself! I found I have a better work-life balance with fewer but a consistent clientele in the week, quality over quantity.

Photo by Alex Fine

Now that you are well-established in London, what’s next for Emma White?

Emma: As someone who is always looking for variety, but also stability, my vision of what I want in the future is forever changing and evolving. Especially with the pandemic a few years back, I realized the importance of adapting to the current environment and the need to pivot my business plans at short notice, so I always have my fingers in a lot of different pies.

Currently, I’m in the process of starting my own business, running a small equipment studio, which is both scary and exciting. I feel that whenever I have a goal in mind that I want to achieve, it’s important to be aware that there will be many hurdles and roadblocks to overcome and not get disheartened if things don’t work out as planned.

What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or going on the journey?

Emma: Be gentle and patient with yourself, and don’t rush into anything that doesn’t fully resonate with what you want or need. Good things take time to find and build, so be open, curious, and explore all the career options the world has to offer before making any hasty decisions, as you never know when and where you will find your next passion.

It can also be helpful to build connections and broaden your professional network, so you have a strong support system of like-minded individuals. You never know who or what will ignite a spark of interest or help you along the way into another job or career pathway.

Top image: Photo by Sophie Keogh

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