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Pivot Pointe
January 4, 2024

Career Transition With Suzan Sittig

Flight Attendant

Suzan Sittig, a distinguished professional dancer, began her remarkable journey at the esteemed Royal Ballet School where her talent was promptly recognized with "The Dowell Sibley Award" for Young Artist of the Year.

Her professional career took flight in 2013 when she joined the ranks of the Vienna State Ballet as an artist, a position she held for a decade until 2023. Suzan's exceptional talent and dedication saw her grace the stages of this prestigious institution.

In a surprising career shift, Suzan transitioned into the airlines and aviation industry, bringing her into a new sphere as she simultaneously pursues Dance Medicine. With an emphasis on holistic approaches, she blends sports science research into her work, championing the significance of self-awareness in movement.

Suzan is now committed to improving the wellbeing of dancers using her wealth of knowledge and experience. Defining her new journey, Suzan continues to inspire and educate those who aspire to follow in her footsteps.

Photo by Pia S Photo

When did you decide to retire from your career with the Vienna State Opera Ballet?

Suzan Sittig: For a while, I had been questioning my future and whether I was still in a career that I  wholeheartedly wanted to continue pursuing, but I tended to feel guilty for indulging too much in the idea of a new path.  It wasn't until the summer of 2022 that I realized it was time for me to move on. I'm glad that I was honest with myself about this conclusion and I felt a huge sense of relief. It felt good to admit it. The bigger question was, what comes next?

Transitioning out of a career as a dancer was challenging because, unlike the clearly defined path in my dancing career, the real world offers many vague and varied paths to achieve your next dream or goal. It seemed to me that the most obvious next steps were to apply for university so I gave myself 2 years for the transition. However, I was dealing with a chronic injury that caused me pain. It didn't prevent me from dancing entirely, but it was hindering me enough to realize that I didn't want to live and dance in pain every day, never mind suffering with pain in daily life as well.  This urged me to start to focus on exploring education options and potential universities.  Trying to navigate a completely new world, caused me a lot of anxiety and I definitely had many moments of wanting to back out, and just stick it out with dancing; the uncomfortable comfort zone.

During this time, I spoke with a yoga teacher who mentioned she had worked as a flight attendant for Lufthansa. Her mention of this sparked an interest in me. I remembered how I had always been fascinated by the aviation world and flying. I even told my parents when I was younger that I thought being a flight attendant would be a cool job. 

One night, while anxiously looking at university options, an Instagram advertisement for an airline popped up. I clicked on it, and it piqued my interest. I had a strong feeling of: ‘Hey, why not?’ So, I applied for an open day recruitment for an airline, telling myself that if I got the job, I would take it as a sign. After securing the job, it just felt easier to make the official decision to stop dancing. I didn't want to continue to dance in pain, and I felt ready to move on - I was craving an adventure. 

Yes, my ballet experience has definitely influenced my new role as a flight attendant. One primary similarity is the need for quick adaptation. There are numerous situations that one cannot prepare for in advance.

How did your colleagues at the Vienna State Opera Ballet react when you decided to switch careers?

Suzan: I didn't share my plans initially because I was still finalizing my job with the airline and I wanted to speak with my director about my decision first. Before the meeting with my Director, I was incredibly nervous. For a long time, I wondered what that moment would be like, but I was fully prepared for the fact that I would cry and be an emotional wreck.

However, I walked out with the biggest smile on my face, feeling as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I went back to a rehearsal and announced my resignation to my colleagues. Their surprised faces turned into congratulations, an unexpected but welcome response. They acknowledged my decision as ‘brave’, a description I had not considered at all. I did not see myself as ‘brave’.  Instead, I was just proud of myself for finally being honest with myself.

Fast forward a few months, and when I told them I was becoming a flight attendant, they were even more surprised and maybe there was a tinge of envy. 

Photo by Petra Sittig

Can you provide insight into the recruitment process for becoming a flight attendant?

Suzan: Of course, however, each airline has its own unique process, much like ballet companies.

For the airlines I applied to, they each held open days. You register beforehand and show up dressed professionally, as if ready for the job. This is a quality that they expect from candidates.

The process usually includes several rounds. Both experiences were somewhat stressful, but it felt similar to a ballet audition where there were elimination rounds. I had to remind myself that I was not auditioning for a ballet company, but deciding whether this job and company were right for me. It's important not to lose sight of your decision-making power during the application process. 

The steps generally begin with a basic introduction in front of everyone. This moves on to role-play scenarios, where they might present a situation that could occur on an aircraft. While you might not know the airline's exact rules or the correct way to handle a passenger, they are mostly looking to see your personality and how you would react in such a situation. Finally, there's a one-to-one interview with some more individual or personalized questions. 

How did it feel to receive job offers from two airlines? Can you elaborate on the onboarding process and ongoing training?

Suzan: Yes, certainly. Each airline has slightly different training processes. You attend an aviation school where you learn the universal basic standards or the EASA regulations. These are strict rules about safety and security procedures. Initially, we learned the standard operating procedures, and later, we delved into airline-specific protocols, which are generally even stricter.

The training was intensive, usually five days a week from eight until five. Besides theory, we also had practical training in aircraft mock-ups. We were put into simulated situations like handling fires on board, smoke, emergency evacuations, and water ditching procedures. We even had a session in a swimming pool to simulate a water-ditching process.

Honestly, these scenarios were quite challenging to imagine. It was a bit unnerving to think of being in those life-and-death situations. However, these skills, although I hope to never use them, were very interesting to learn. We also learned about the backstage operations of an aircraft and how well it is equipped for emergencies. 

Other practical skills included using a fire extinguisher, communicating effectively on board, and understanding the psychology behind most accidents that occur due to human error. We also had medical training to administer certain medications and perform CPR. Service training was another aspect - which may seem simple-  but can be quite complex due to the many details to consider. There was a lot to take in during the training period, but the majority of the learning came from practical application. 

Has your ballet experience influenced your role as a flight attendant? Are there any unexpected similarities between the worlds of ballet and aviation?

Suzan: Yes, my ballet experience has definitely influenced my new role as a flight attendant. One primary similarity is the need for quick adaptation. There are numerous situations that one cannot prepare for in advance. Another factor is working with a new crew on every flight. Each person has a slightly different working style let alone personality, and one must adjust accordingly. You have to work as a team in any given situation and that’s a skill you gain from working in the corps de ballet.

Regarding the environment, the aircraft's galley is akin to a ballet performance's backstage area. Navigating the galley and knowing what to prepare is a skill much like learning a dance's choreography. I quickly realized how much of my learning style is visual and practical; I guess that comes from having to learn choreography!  Discipline is, of course,  key in both fields. Punctuality and strict adherence to safety procedures are non-negotiable, even if they seem tedious or time-consuming.

Lastly, empathy is crucial. Whether it involves addressing a passenger's fear of flying, illness, or anxiety, it's important to show understanding. As dancers, we cultivate empathy through our shared experiences and challenges and our ability to tap into emotions to portray them through movement. 

If you're curious about something, research it, talk to someone in that industry, and ask questions. It doesn't signify disloyalty to your current career.

How have you adapted to the lifestyle changes that come with your new profession?

Suzan: I'm still adapting, particularly to the jet lag. Recently, I was awake for 31 hours due to the time difference and the long flight from Hong Kong.  The sleep deprivation is definitely challenging and I'm slowly getting acclimated to waking up early. It's also been a transition, not being as active as I used to be, but I've found ways to cope. I love being active, whether that's doing yoga, running, walking, going to the gym or even taking dance classes. My body craves movement, but I am also enjoying the fact that I can choose how and when I move. 

The fact that every week is different is both an adventure and a challenge.  It’s almost impossible to establish a routine (a form of stability that I’ve always liked to take comfort in), however, it is teaching me to be less rigid in my ways and to find some kind of flexible routine within the inconsistency.   

Is this your final career move, or do you have future ambitions?

Suzan: No, this is not my final destination. Initially, I was nervous and uncertain but permitted myself to back out if necessary. However, I knew that I wanted to try something new and give myself space to figure out what I wanted to do next.  

After leaving the dance world, I felt the pressure to immediately have an answer to what I would do next, but at the same time, I had such an itch to travel and see more of the world. I needed time to get to know myself without ballet and to figure out where I could truly see myself in the future.

I've learned to be honest with myself about the job's difficulties as well as its rewards. This honesty and openness have helped me realize that, in the long term, this isn't my final stage. I am really experiencing what it’s like to live in the present moment and to be grateful for what is happening right now. It's an amazing opportunity that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life, along with the skills I've acquired. 

I don't have a set end date in the skies, but I envision myself working with dancers, professional athletes, or artists in some capacity. I'm passionate about improving the dance industry, specifically in terms of career transition and injury rehabilitation. I'm also interested in the psychological aspects of the industry. Even while flying, these are topics that occupy my mind, and I believe they will lead me to my next destination.

What would you tell dancers who are apprehensive that they might lack the necessary skills for a career beyond dancing?

Suzan: I would tell them that this belief is not true. It's a debilitating and hindering thought process. Often, it's our mind's way of making excuses for not taking action due to fear of the unknown. I have and am still experiencing the fear of the unknown, but I am learning to embrace it. Not knowing is being open for beautiful unexpected moments and discovering doors that you never thought could open. Life as a flight attendant has taught me to live a bit more unpredictably and to find excitement in that uncertainty. There's tremendous potential when you allow things to happen. 

Also, as dancers, we often underestimate the skills we've accumulated over the years. We may not have university degrees, but we have developed many skills that are valuable in everyday life and often taken for granted. Employers appreciate dancers as employees because we possess a unique work ethic and presentation skills, which are vital in life, let alone the workspace.

The discipline and work ethic that dancers develop are the gateway skills in achieving something in a new industry or pursuing further education.  Knowledge can always be gained and you will learn something new every day, However, work ethic and self-motivation are rarer attributes and they are something that every dancer can be proud of. 

Photo by Sarah Longworth

What advice would you give to dancers considering a career change or about to start this new adventure?

Suzan: If you're considering a change, allow those thoughts to flow freely. They're just thoughts inside your head, and it's healthy to explore them. If you're curious about something, research it, talk to someone in that industry, and ask questions. It doesn't signify disloyalty to your current career. For instance, I once felt as if I was being unfaithful to ballet by considering other options. However, when I allowed those thoughts, I gained a clearer perspective on what I truly wanted. 

The keyword here is 'explore'. After making a decision, which is often the easiest part, allow the unknown to unfold. Follow your intuition without rigid plans. Take one step at a time and be kind to yourself.

If your life situation permits, take some time off, travel, or spend time with family. This is especially relevant for dancers, who often sacrifice family time. Ground yourself again, find your roots, and be patient with yourself. It's an incredible, self-discovering, journey.

Top image by Marian Furnica

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