The career transition column by Liz Weldon
Greetings Pivot Pointe readers. I am excited to “meet” you all, and am very grateful to Kay for allowing me the opportunity to share some of my journey. I am a big advocate of Kay’s work because what she offers with Pivot Pointe is not only unique, it is so important.
Ballet is very individualistic, and often we are on our own to navigate careers, and our eventual transition. This is a lot for an individual to take on by themselves. The ending of our career can feel especially isolating and emotionally challenging. As the loss of our dream, the loss of our community, the loss of our identity sets in, the added pressure to find a career path can be overwhelming to say the least. And whether we want to admit it or not, career transition is something that each and every dancer will face. We need support during this time. I know I did. Brené Brown claims:
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.”
I am so grateful to Kay for creating these resources for dancers. I know I would have benefited from her program during my transition.
I will be sharing with you a candid and raw journey through my career transition. I look forward to this journey together.
MY JOURNEY - A ROAD LESS TRAVELED
In May 2018, I retired from an almost nine-year career with Ballet West. My journey is unusual from most professional dancers who have trained for a majority of their lives. Instead, I began truly training for a professional career after I graduated from college. After I graduated, I took a job as a residential advisor at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and began taking classes, and learned ballet all over again starting with the basics. When I was around 13 and 14 years old, I trained intensively at The Boston Ballet School year-round, and spent a summer at the Harid Conservatory, but then danced only recreationally throughout my high school and college years. CPYB offered me the best possible training for a chance at a professional career at twenty-two years old. I trained there for two and a half years trying to catch up on the years of training I had missed. When I finally got a job in Orlando Ballet’s second company, and later at Ballet West, it felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Despite achieving my dreams of becoming a professional dancer, I often felt like I didn’t belong, and that I was deficient and unprepared for a professional career. However, I believe coming into the ballet world as an adult with more life experience offered me an almost outsider perspective of the industry. My identity wasn’t solely tied to ballet from a young age the way it is for most dancers. Instead, it was a career I had consciously chosen and fought for as an adult. And yet, retiring was still challenging, and I believe I’m not alone in struggling to transition out of a career in the ballet world. This is why I’m really excited for Kay’s creation of Pivot Pointe to help assist dancers through this period of transition.
THE DECISION TO QUIT
The final years of my career, I would receive my annual contract letter for another year with the company, and feel a deep sense of conflict in my body. I knew I still loved dancing, and would always love dancing. I knew how many girls would die to have my job, and I was so grateful to be employed by one of the top companies in the country. And yet, my emotional body was struggling to show up and perform my job. I slowly began to recognize that I needed to make a change. I needed to transition.
However, it took a long time to actually arrive at the decision to retire. In Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, she does a wonderful job of describing the psychological process of transition. Before many of us take the actual steps to transition, we find ourselves in a psychological in-between period, in which Ibarra states, “we are truly between selves, with one foot still firmly planted in the old world and the other making tentative steps toward an as-yet undefined new world.” She says there’s an inner conflict of letting go of what we know and love, and risking stepping into uncharted territory.
I was terrified to let go of the life I had as a dancer. Even though I was struggling emotionally, I enjoyed my life as a dancer. I loved the daily practice of class, and moving my body. I loved being in the studio with live music. I enjoyed taking on new challenges daily, even though they also often scared the crap out of me. Every day I felt alive, and in my body. I dreaded the idea of sitting at a desk in an office, and giving up this life filled with artistry and movement.
However, I also couldn’t deny an underlying desire to leave, and escape the emotional strain I was experiencing. I had worked so hard to achieve my dream of dancing. Basically learning ballet all over again at 22 years old after I graduated from college, and then going on to have a professional career felt like nothing short of a miracle. My ability to “make it” gave me this false assurance that if I just worked hard enough, I could achieve anything. This initial drive that helped me succeed, also led to my burnout. I felt like I was beating my head against a wall trying to do everything right, but felt like I was failing, and I didn’t want to let it go.
It wasn’t until a meeting with my director that finally made me acknowledge that I need to retire. I had been taken out of featured roles that I had originally been cast to do in Nutcracker. It was not the first time I had been taken out of parts, and I was struggling not to take it personally. As Brené Brown would say, being taken out of parts became a “shame trigger.” I felt like I was taken out because staff didn’t see me as “good enough” to perform them. I confessed to my director that I was struggling not to take the casting changes personally. He went on to say that I hadn’t been dancing well, that I seemed miserable and bitter, and that he didn’t want to make a decision for me about my future, and that I should consider my options as contracts went out.
These statements were difficult truths to accept. My experiences in the company over the years broke down my self-confidence, and I knew I was struggling to dance at the level I knew I was capable of. And despite my continued efforts to show up as my best self, to accept my role in the company, however that looked, with resilience and positivity, I also couldn’t deny the truth behind his words. It was time to leave.