How often do you take a moment to think about past lessons learned – how the decisions you've made in your life have led you to where you are today? If you had accepted your friend's invitation to a one-off class with a new company? The one where your friend ended up with a job in said company because it ended up being an unadvertised audition. Or, if you hadn't eaten that suspect sushi before teaching your Tuesday class? I don't need to explain this one...

Each decision becomes a lesson learned–some that you pass along to peers and students and others that you only tell your best friends. In honor of Senior Health and Fitness Day, which lands on the last Wednesday of May, I've asked some "senior" dancers within my network to reflect on their past and offer some advice to their younger counterparts.

  • I posed four questions to eight intelligent dancers with long and varied careers who are all over 55 years of age.
  • I asked them to reflect on actions taken in the categories of auditions, taking classes, opportunities passed on or taken, health (diet/exercise/mental), etc.
  • I didn't ask that they write in paragraph form or edit themselves–I wanted to hear their voice in their words.

Their answers are raw, honest, humorous, long, brief, insightful, and motivational, and I cannot thank them enough for reflecting on their pasts and sharing their lessons learned with all of us.

1. Pertaining to the listed categories, are there things you wish you had done that you didn't?

David Dorfman, 66: I wish I had learned anatomy/kinesiology more thoroughly, which might have helped me with injuries, particularly my back.

General McArthur Hambrick, 64: When I first moved to New York after graduation from university, pursuing a career in musical theater, I wish that I had known more about auditioning. It would have been helpful to be better prepared for callbacks. I was very green.

Nancy Cranbourne, 66: There was one audition I passed up for a Bill Irwin show in Seattle; the show then went to Broadway. Many of my friends got in the cast. The only moment I actually regret in my career.

"Never assume that you're not good enough; you are." - Gerard Theoret

Gerard Theoret, 60-something: I have no regrets about the paths I traveled in my career. There have been so many forks in the road that I can't help but wonder how different my career/life might have been had I chosen the different routes. My career so far exceeded my goals and aspirations at the start of my training that, in hindsight, my advice to young dancers would be to be humble but dream big. I can say that there were opportunities that I passed on and recognize now that that was the right thing to do. When I was a student in the school of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, I had a couple of different offers to join smaller companies then and there that would have had me on salary and performing a couple of years before I was eventually offered my first contract with the RWB. I held out for the big prize, and I'm so glad I did. After I retired from the RWB, I moved to England to train as an actor. When I returned to Canada, I was asked to return to the RWB, and I turned down the offer because I had changed careers in my heart already. I've often wondered what it would have been like to return to the company at that time. When I was offered my initial season at the Stratford Festival, I was hired as an actor, but I have no doubt that my dance experience was a huge factor as one of my first three shows was a musical for which I served as Dance Captain. The moral of that story: There is life after Ballet. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater because everything you've done and everything you've learned makes you a richer human being and more employable.

Wade Madsen, 67: I am sure there are things I could have added to my learning, and I could still, but I am very content to have had the life I have had. My youth was creative and driven, and I had a lot of opportunities, challenges, and many accomplishments.

Betsy Cooper, 59: Some opportunities that I likely should have considered more.

Douglas Nielsen wearing a jacket with many arms
Douglas Nielsen - photo: Ed Flores

Douglas Nielsen, 73: In the words of Edith Piaf - Non, Je ne regrette rien. New York City in the 1970s was a time of multiple opportunities in dance. Classes in every style were readily available. Choreographers with vivid imaginations were expressing their politics and points of view.

Lara Branen, 60-something: I wish I had taken better care of myself in general when I was in my 20's & early 30's. I got it together by my mid-30s, but before that, drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll were my lifestyle - not consistent with the discipline needed to be a professional dancer. I feel this is what held me back from being more successful - more than anything else. Also, I didn't believe in myself and had a lot of anxieties about being good enough - that might have fed into the escapism. So actually, I wish I would've taken better care of my mental health - dealt with my issues at a younger age. I wish I had been more focused.

2. What were you skeptical about trying or attending that you're really glad you did?

David: I remember finally getting up the courage to attend a "think/tank" kind of workshop in an international festival, about which I was completely intimidated. Once there and participating, I found it exhilarating.

Nancy: Shows that I thought I wouldn't like. I always learned something, and it always inspired me. Counterintuitively my negative reaction would push me to create something I liked better.

Gerard: Ballet! (and Graham technique) As much as I loved everything about both techniques/forms, it was so physically painful that I questioned why I was doing it. I literally had to change my body: I started with a very swayed lower back (overly flexible), tight hips, bow-legged, stiff ankles, knees that didn't fully straighten, overly sloped shoulders. I thought my legs were too short for my 6-foot frame. I thought my bum was too large for my upper body proportions. My neck seemed so long that little kids called me Giraffe instead of Gerard. So, after three years in college focusing on the Pedagogy (to become a teacher), I had decided I was too old to be a dancer (and all of the above). Luckily, a kind Professor convinced me to audition for dance companies after I graduated. I was accepted into the professional schools of the three main Ballet Companies in the country at the time. I chose the RWB. Even though that should have been an amazing time of celebration, and it was, I had imposter syndrome, thinking that I didn't really belong (because of all of the above), and I was always in pain trying to change my body. (many tears) So, I'm really glad that I trained and trained, and persevered. As much as I wanted to quit many times, I did not retire until I had reached the status of Soloist with the RWB. And, even then, I may have given up too early, but I discovered that I wanted to be an actor. Although I was a little skeptical about my chances of success, considering I spoke with a pretty thick French-Canadian accent and wanted to work in the English theatre, I persevered. I'm glad I did.

Wade: Anything within the physical plane of moving. I am happy that I had less fear than I do now and I was able to try many things. I am not one for really pushing myself, and I am not much of a follower unless they are somewhat of the same mindset as myself. So I like to be motivated by experience and not ego.

Betsy: I actually auditioned for everything that I knew about but lacked confidence.

Douglas: With so many choices, I did not shy away from searching out teachers and choreographers with opposing views. Taking classes in Cunningham, Limon, Graham, Ballet, Jazz, and yes, HULA - is the best way to find out who you are.

Lara: I don't remember ever being skeptical about anything dance-related - I jumped in without hesitation and was all in from the time, at age 19, I realized dance was "it" for me. I have no regrets about trying or doing anything dance-related. I didn't let anything hold me back from going to SF and NYC to live and immerse myself in dance. I jumped in even when I was scared to death. For example, taking Lynn Simonson's advanced jazz class in NYC terrified me, and I was never comfortable - but I did it.

"Opportunities are just that - try things that scare you, that you don't know." - David Dorfman

3. What advice do you have for dancers who are actively auditioning and performing?

David: Go to the audition. Be yourself. Be kind, aware, and give your all.

General: I believe in staying true to yourself, and respecting those around you. It is important to be prepared, and have a vision or a goal for your life, even if it changes along the way. And lastly, don't burn bridges, because you may find that you need to cross one at some point in your career.

Nancy: Do not be a cookie-cutter dancer. Be the flawed, original human you are. It's much more interesting to a risky impassioned choreographer.

Gerard: Do not second guess yourself; just go for it. Have a discerning eye but do not self-criticize. Never assume that you're not good enough; you are. Don't give up!

Wade: Be yourself, be willing to be all that you can be, know who you are auditioning for. Know the landscape. Work toward that company in every way you can. Know the work, know the dancers, know the process on some level. Do you look like the rest of the company, and would your presence be an asset to the company? What is that company lacking, and be that missing link.

Wade Madsen performing
Wade Watson - photo: Tom Schworrer

Betsy: Do your research before the audition (watch some rep, learn about the company, the director, be open during the audition, and do your best to be your authentic self when you are auditioning---being satisfied means finding a good fit, use the audition as an opportunity to learn.

Douglas: See everything. Audition for everything. As Oscar Wilde said, Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

Lara: If you want to achieve your personal best and be a dance force to contend with, do not ignore any psychological issues that are holding you back - make that a priority to address and figure out (like getting with a good therapist) rather than ignoring it or self-medicating with whatever substance you might choose. Or even distracting yourself with something else, whatever that might be. Get your "house" in order - meaning take an honest look at your lifestyle and address any areas that aren't enhancing your health - mental and physical so you can be your best. Otherwise, you are sabotaging your own success.

4. Bonus: Anything else you'd like to add?

David: Opportunities are just that - try things that scare you, that you don't know. That is how we learn and know what others are experiencing. Enjoy!

General: Life is full of surprises. Accept them as opportunities.

Nancy: Love what you do. Fall in love with all of it, every failure, every moment of exquisite joy. Be in communion with other dancers. Be happy for every friend who gets in a show, a company, a tour. Eat up the stage with your desire to live fully there.

Gerard: Now that I'm a Life Coach, I see so clearly how so many of us self-sabotage ourselves because of how critical and insecure we are. Being a retired dancer - I know that I'm in better shape/health than my "human" counterparts.  ;-)

"Don't burn bridges, because you may find that you need to cross one at some point in your career." - General McArthur Hambrick

Betsy: If you can, find a mentor--someone experienced who can listen and from whom you can learn.

Douglas: Times have changed. In my 50 years of performing, choreographing, and teaching, I've observed many bumps in the road. Yet the drive to dance is ever in the air. My students are eager and extremely talented. My only hope is that they find their original path. And I say to them, IT'S YOUR TURN.

Lara: I'd say take time for inner reflection to figure out what you really want from dance - what do you aspire to? Get clear on that and get focused and don't delay because you think you have all the time in the world. The prime time for you as a dancer will go by so fast. At this age, what I know more than anything is time flies, and life is short. Seize the day! Carpe diem!

I can’t close any more motivationally than these dear senior dancers, but I will encourage you to consider asking these questions to people in your life. To learn more about each dancer, follow the link within their name in answer one.  Senior, or not, learning about other people’s choices and results can be helpful in your future decision making.

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