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Pivot Pointe
December 14, 2023

Career Transition With Sarah Reynolds

Member Services and Administration Officer at the Kunstenbond

Sarah was born and raised in Dublin Ireland, and discovered a passion for dance at an early age with Ella Doran and Phil Cole. She trained professionally at Central School of Ballet, London, graduating with a diploma in classical ballet in 2001. From there she worked in Metz, France before moving to Saarbrücken Germany where she worked with Marguerite Donlon. Then in 2004 she successfully auditioned for NDT 2. She moved up to the main company in 2007 only leaving in 2019. During her time with the company she danced the works of Jiri Kylian, Lightfoot Leon, Naharin, Ek, van Manen, Goecke, Pite as well as many other guest choreographers, dancing both in the creation of new works as well as repertoire. 

She has also worked with film, performing in short film ‘Voices of Finance’ (2015) and feature-length ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (2019) both directed by Clara van Gool. Sarah continues exploring her dance, acting, teaching and coaching primarily in the Netherlands where she is based. She recently graduated from Erasmus University, Rotterdam where she completed a Masters in cultural sociology (thesis topic – organizational network analysis of a dance company).

Throughout her career, Sarah has also contributed significantly to the management of dancers with her efforts as a dancer representative and a Dancers Council member. She was instrumental in the setting up and organization of this informal organization, that is supported by and influences the Dutch trade union for artists, Kunstenbond. She has participated in numerous collective labour negotiations, and continues to lobby for dancers’ interests and better evolving working conditions. This focus on the artists in the cultural sector means that she is uniquely positioned to have expertise in all areas of dance organizations, from employee experience, creative and artistic management and planning, with an extensive network of the most cutting-edge of choreographers and leaders in the field.

Photo by Joris Jan Bos Photography

Let's start by discussing the beginning of your career transition. What motivated your decision to transition after many years of dancing with the Netherlands Dans Theater (NDT)?

Sarah Reynolds: I always knew that there would be a life after dance. To be honest, I'm still amazed at how far I made it in my dance career. However, having two children while still dancing made it more challenging to return to work. Managing the first one's school schedule and leaving my second baby was emotionally draining. Yet, I still had a passion for dance, but I felt a clock ticking. I started thinking about what my life would be like after dance. How could I fulfill my needs and ambitions? How could I secure my family's financial position?

After having my second baby, my husband and I decided to buy a new house in Amsterdam. We wanted to be closer to a bigger city since my husband worked there more often. It was a practical decision to secure our future financially. I had a salary, so we could get a mortgage and buy a house.

In the following season, I informed Paul Lightfoot, the director at the time, that it would be my last season. However, he asked me to come back and do one ballet to cover a situation that wasn't ideal at the moment. I saw it as an opportunity to slowly transition from the stage while still freelancing and building a new career. The ballet happened in the 2018-2019 season. Then, COVID-19 happened, and it became clear to me that it was time to stop dancing.

The gradual transition was more challenging than I expected. It was a roller coaster of emotions and hormones. The sudden drop in adrenaline and serotonin levels affected me. I took COVID-19 as a sign to stop. 

Did you seek assistance from Omscholing Dansers Netherlands (ODN), a resource for career transition, when transitioning from NDT?

Sarah: Yes, ODN has been wonderful in providing support during my transition; I worked closely with Paul Bronkhorst, who guided me on how to end my career. They offer two funding assistance programs for dancers, and I accessed both of them. While still dancing, I received funding to pay for my psychology degree, which I pursued part-time for eight years. They also provided counseling support and funding for my master's degree in Cultural Sociology. Along with the unemployment benefit, ODN offered a monthly stipend to help with practical expenses. ODN assisted with practical matters such as daycare expenses and ensuring financial stability during the transition.

The funding for ODN comes from contributions by employers and employees. In the past, dancers paid 1% of their monthly salary, while employers paid 3%. Currently, the rates have changed slightly, with dancers now paying 3% and employers paying 9%. Although the amount is higher, the ratio remains the same. Freelancers also have the option to request that their employers pay a premium while they are working on projects.

The transition allowed me to rediscover myself, evaluate my worth, and find my purpose beyond dance. It was a time to distance myself from the constant go-go-go and reflect on my journey. Having the space and time to evaluate and process everything was invaluable.

The transition to a career beyond dance is a topic that deserves more attention. I believe that there are shifts happening in the dance world, where dancers are choosing to stay within the performing space for longer and exploring opportunities for more stable and sustainable careers. Age should not dictate the end of a dancing career, and it is empowering for individuals to take control of their transition and make choices for themselves.

During your time at the Central School of Ballet, you were introduced to cognitive therapy. Did this experience spark your interest in pursuing a Bachelor of Psychology? Did you aspire to become a dance psychologist?

Sarah: Yes, it did. I was fascinated by the idea and wanted to explore psychology for dancers, specifically from a sports psychology perspective. At Central, a therapist introduced us to cognitive behavioral therapy, explaining how our brains function like computers and how we can optimize our performance and support our dance careers by programming them. 

I embraced this approach and used it extensively. However, I felt that something was missing. I realized that I needed someone to help me discover my identity beyond being a dancer so that I could focus on personal growth rather than solely on my career. Throughout my career, I had the privilege of working with directors who guided me in this aspect. For example, Anders Hellström, my director at NDT, encouraged me to explore other art forms and seek inspiration outside of dance. This advice allowed me to develop as an artist and performer.

While studying psychology, my initial plan was to become a dance psychologist as a backup career. However, it was more about understanding myself and my artistic process rather than having a specific goal in mind. I gained insights into interpersonal behavior and its connection to our work as dancers. It was exciting to discover that many of my personal experiences had already been researched and validated.

Over time, I realized that being a dance psychologist would be an insecure position, especially as a freelancer or entrepreneur. My focus shifted as I took on a role representing dancers and started working with the union. I still apply what I learned from psychology, but now it's more about creating safe and supportive environments where people can seek help and guidance. Although I personally found the business side of freelancing challenging, I believe dance psychologists are invaluable, and their expertise should not be underestimated.

How did you become involved with the Dancers Council? Can you explain your role as an organizer and the organization's mission?

Sarah: I became involved with the Dancers Council through meetings with dancer representatives from major companies in the Netherlands. Our goal was to support each other, share experiences, and learn from one another as representatives. Despite the differences in our companies, we discovered that we faced similar challenges in communication with managers, workload management, and time organization.

Recognizing the value of pooling our resources and knowledge, we decided to create a platform where representatives could come together and provide support. New representatives could seek advice and guidance from more experienced members, ensuring continuity and shared values within the role of a dancer representative.

After leaving NDT, the Dancers Council asked me to represent them in collective labor negotiations, which led me to work with the union. Currently, I am part-time at the Kunstenbond, representing the interests of dancers in collective labor negotiations. This transition was natural for me as I had experience advocating for my colleagues during my time as a representative.

Being part of the union allows me to support dancers, answer their questions, provide guidance, and assist them in navigating negotiations with their employers. The union encompasses the entire cultural and creative sector, including the commercial side. As active members, we have the ability to influence the union's work and decisions, ensuring that dancers have a voice and influence within the organization. Ultimately, our mission is to empower dancers and ensure their interests are represented and respected.

Photo by Anna De Wit

I understand that you aim to expand your work and services to include freelance dancers, in addition to representing dancers in main dance companies. What are the future plans for the Dancers Council in terms of expansion?

Sarah: Finding freelancers is difficult, particularly in the urban contemporary hip-hop dance scene. Many dancers in this scene have multiple roles, such as modeling and costume-making. However, solely being a freelance dancer is challenging in today's world. At the Nederlandse Dansdagen, a national dance festival, I noticed that many dancers were multitasking as makers and performers. Financial stability is a struggle as well for urban contemporary hip-hop dancers. They often rely on other sources of income and smaller organizations focusing on this genre may not provide consistent financial support.

To support dancers, we offer services such as tax advice, guidance on organizing their freelance business, and legal representation. However, reaching out to them and gaining their attention is challenging. Our approach is to consistently show up and communicate our message of assistance and support. We understand that joining a trade union may be unfamiliar to many young people today, including dancers. They question the value of contributing to an organization without immediate returns. However, as freelancers, legal issues are common and it is important for dancers to know that they have a voice and support. We can even have discussions with their directors on their behalf.

In the Kunstenbond - membership of Dancers Council is totally free. We offer a basic package for employees and freelancers at 12.50 EUR per month. We want potential members to see the benefits before committing to membership. The Dancers Council operates in an informal manner, providing a platform for dancers to share their problems and find solutions. It is not an official organization but aims to improve working conditions for everyone through solidarity.

Political changes and funding in the dance/cultural sector often complicate and dictate its direction. In this changing landscape, how do you envision dancers and companies moving forward?

Sarah: In Europe, compared to the United States, securing subsidies presents more challenges for larger organizations due to stricter requirements. In the Netherlands, subsidized companies are currently applying for four-year funding and developing plans on how to allocate the funds. The trajectory post-COVID is clear: organizations, especially larger ones, need to produce less and pay people more. 

During the pandemic, the government provided significant financial support to organizations, but it did not reach freelancers and individuals as intended. Instead, organizations increased production while freelancers faced lower wages. This led to a paradoxical situation where there is now a heightened level of production but lower wages for individuals. We need to consider fair practice and fair pay while maintaining artistic quality. Organizations must make difficult choices to ensure our people can earn a living wage and keep up with inflation. Practical budgeting considerations should be taken into account. Governments should listen to these concerns directly from organizations. The union and freelancers have already emphasized this point multiple times. We need to sustain the practice of dance and the innovation that comes from freelancers. Considering the dance sector as a whole ecosystem is essential. We can no longer rely on the market to self-regulate, as seen during the flawed trickle-down policy implemented during COVID-19.

How do you see your studies in Psychology (Bachelor's degree) and Cultural Sociology (Master's degree) being applied in your day-to-day work with the Dancers Council and Kunstenbond?

Sarah: The Master's degree in Cultural Sociology has expanded my perspective and allowed me to explore other industries, particularly the visual arts world. This has enabled me to think on a broader scale, which was a regular exercise throughout the Master's program. I found this immensely valuable as it helped me move away from a narrow focus solely on dance. Furthermore, the Master's program has emphasized the importance of research and writing. Interestingly, there is a lack of research conducted on dance organizations. For my thesis, I focused on the network and interpersonal relationships within a dance organization, which I found captivating. While there is existing valuable research on freelancers' positions and the precarity of freelancing, I wanted to delve into the micro-level dynamics of a dance organization.

On a practical level, I apply networking and effective communication skills in my daily work. I adjust my communication style to suit dancers from diverse backgrounds, as they come from various parts of the world and may not be familiar with the structures and regulations in the Netherlands, where I work. It is crucial to assist them in understanding their entitlements and responsibilities within this context.

My studies continue to be relevant to my work and have instilled in me the confidence to trust my instincts. As a dancer, I used to doubt myself, but through my Master's program, I have come to realize that my passion for dance and sharing it with others can be channeled to create a meaningful purpose for myself.

Do you have any advice for dancers who are contemplating a career transition or are about to embark on this journey?

Sarah: My advice would be to seek support and guidance from others. Don't try to navigate this journey alone. Talk to everyone, whether it's your grandmother or even your dog. Engage in continuous conversations about your career transition. As dancers, we often remain silent and still. By talking it through, you can start shaping your thoughts and developing critical thinking skills. This will help you create a narrative of what aligns with your aspirations and what doesn't. Remember, this narrative can change and evolve over time.

It's crucial to begin the process of self-reflection. Start by acknowledging that you may want to transition or make a change. This realization can naturally evolve and transform. The more you express your desires and identify what you don't want, the more you can construct a step-by-step plan for where you want to see yourself in five or ten years. What does your ideal life look like?

Top Image: Photo courtesy of Sarah Reynolds

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