So, what you’re telling me is… I spent the majority of my youth in dance classes, paid a small fortune for my training, studied for years to receive a dance degree… all to be told I “only have a couple good years” to live-out my best life as a professional dancer? This stigma is outdated, incorrect, and unfair. Dancers live incredible lives: experiencing artistic fulfillment, appreciative audiences, meeting other creatives, traveling to new places; we deserve to enjoy our performing careers for as long as we can. Being an “older dancer” in your 30’s, 40’s, and beyond, only means that performing is home and you should stay onstage as long as your dancing heart desires.
I don’t intend to ignore the pieces of truth behind the stereotype. At every progressing age, there are probably less working professional dancers. I would picture the bar graph to resemble a downward staircase. There are reasons why many train, yet few persist: physical demands, finances, job stability, health insurance, job loss during the pandemic, some just simply fall out of love with it. It’s horribly unfortunate that many dancers have to end their careers before they wanted, and I mean no shame to anyone who has happily switched jobs. Those who have been fortunate enough to find a home here, live in it for as long as you’re able to and as long as you’d like. There are many ways to make that happen.
Stop mentally aging yourself and others
Believe it or not, many of my points today are mental, not physical. Physical ability is obviously vital, but dance requires mental strength. Mental strength is a fight when you keep hearing “25 is old for a dancer” and other similar statements and jokes. But does age matter? Am I too old to become a dancer? Well, Maria Kowroski recently retired from New York City Ballet at 46, Sherri “Sparkle” Williams of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company retired in her 50’s, Martha Graham danced throughout her 60’s, and Fred Astaire retired sometime in his 70’s. These are some Google-able figures, but there are countless talents proving age is just a number. So, can we collectively agree to stop the ageist comments? As much as we love a good self-deprecation and industry-diss, if we keep letting these thoughts visit our minds, they’re going to build a house and live there. If you want to stay dancing longer, stop telling yourself it’s not normal.
It’s in our best interest to rid this false narrative because, just maybe, the combined realization that dancers are experienced professionals and not always “fresh out of college” may give us more respect in the world. Imagine if an entire industry is completely staffed by those 25 and under, and how the world would treat them. Definitely not saying anyone at any age should be treated with less respect, but this is exactly how we’re perceived. So please do your best to combat this narrative, or at least stop adding to it.
There’s a strange narrative that we must always part ways with dance once we’re ready to “settle down,” get married, or start a family.
Keep your body ‘doing the thing'
My self-indulgent moment of the day: I just finished a contract with a cast whose ages averaged 10 years below mine. According to statistics, I should’ve been the constantly-in-pain performer, but I was the least-injured of the cast. It’s strange to think I may not have been hired if casting automatically assumed over-30 meant a deteriorating body. In reality, those dancing in their 30’s and 40’s must know how to take care of themselves. You’re rarely going to find one of us with incorrect patellar tracking, because a knee would’ve given out by now.
It’s not difficult to understand why dance used to be considered an early-20's endeavor. Training methods were ridiculously harmful that the ruins remaining of the dancers’ bodies, well, it left them no choice but to retire early. Science wasn’t as advanced, there was no 24/7 access to endless anatomical knowledge, and there were far less laws to prevent directors from overworking their dancers. Now that we have marley floors, stopped sitting in straddle for 30 minutes, and realized “dancing through the pain” was bad, we are physically capable for much longer.
However, bodies change through time and it’s vital to know exactly how your body has evolved and be actively adjusting your self-care routine to match. Protect your instrument at all costs: always warm-up, keep stretching to keep your flexibility, and don’t skip your rest days. It’ll keep taking longer to get “back in-shape,” so the more you stay diligent, the better. Lying to yourself about what your current body can do will only get you injured. Once I naively agreed to a trick that I knew I’d done in the past but later realized… that was 10 years ago! Don’t be like me, and keep an inventory of what your abilities are now, let go of your ego, and don’t let it change your mindset of what you can still achieve. Everyone’s physical capabilities are extremely different at any age, but if you’re someone who can keep dancing, by golly, do it!
Know your strengths that come with experience
“You look great for your age!” “You can’t even tell you’re 30!” “I would have never guessed!” Thank you for the “compliments” but why assume I’m trying to hide my age? I’m very proud of it. I’m proud that I’ve been doing this for 10 years, of everything I’ve accomplished thus far, and I think you’d rather hire the human I am now versus the one I was. Trying to de-age is taking away all the incredible traits one gains through years of experience, and those traits are some the dance world needs.
Certain things go away (my long-lost back flexibility) but they get replaced. The thought that there may be a lesser chance the dancer will get injured, gets replaced with a mature artistry, and working professional knowledge. Ballet companies know the best versions of Odette/Odile come from mature dancers, and there are reasons for that: the amount of finite artistry needed, the extreme knowledge of pacing, the acting duality, the list continues. These and many other traits take time, and not just a few years, so trust the process of artistic development. Awareness of one’s time-earned strengths can also keep you focused on displaying those, rather than focusing on being “the oldest one in the room.”
Also, we need experienced dancers to stick around and become the experienced leaders and dance captains, due to their time witnessing both the positive and negative. The amount of times I’ve been the older dancer and been the only one noticing and correcting stage conditions, you’d think I was a union rep. It worries me that if I wasn’t present, dancers would have been putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations, because they haven’t yet had the years to know what shouldn’t be tolerated. I’ve purposefully seen shows hire inexperienced candidates to therefore cross the line of what’s right, whether it’s pay, stage conditions, etc. Every industry needs those experienced to continue working and taking strides for better working conditions.
Don’t be afraid of updating your goals
Most people aren’t pursuing the goals they made when they were kids. I take that back… some dancers have known since birth; but you understand the sentiment. As we gain life experience, our personal needs and wants alter and our goals should directly correlate to those changes. If you started your career when you were 18 and are now 30, 12 years of life experiences are bound to give you more knowledge, more telling experiences, and more discoveries. The dance career jackpot we set our sights on at 18 may not align with your life 12 years later, but we luckily work in an industry that has a diverse multitude of avenues.
We need experienced dancers to stick around and become the experienced leaders and dance captains, due to their time witnessing both the positive and negative.
We often see dancers trying different outlets, new genres, different cities or countries; and this can sometimes be important to keeping a lengthy career. While I used to fully enjoy dancing a 45-minute high-energy parade on concrete under the Florida sun, for my body’s longevity I now gravitate far away from anything as such. I’m now searching out less daily shows and, rather, artistically challenging roles where my acting is highlighted. Maybe to you, more shows are now desired, because that could mean greater financial gain. Other dancers leave a strenuous company position to pursue gig work with increased scheduling flexibility. Some join company life for the stability or for a relocation to a desired city. Some leave a same-show-every-week job to find variety. Whatever your starting and ending point may be, base any decisions on your current wants and needs.
Find ways to fit dance into your changing life
There’s a strange narrative that we must always part ways with dance once we’re ready to “settle down,” get married, or start a family. First, a professional dance career isn’t being considered a real profession here, but I won’t start that tangent. Second, the outdated term “settling down” doesn’t ever have to happen, in whichever way the term means to you. Third, no life change, big or small, has to mean a career change from dance or it not fitting into your life at all. As we see in society today, there’s a shift in what people desire for their lives. Through difficult pandemic-era times, society has begun to realize that fulfilling work is a key to happiness. If it hasn’t already become a priority for you, it's going to be worth the fight in the long run.
Once a life partner or family is involved, there’s more to consider but many make the decision together to make it work. Accepting short contracts, traveling, working unpredictable hours, and finding childcare are hurdles many families face, regardless or not if they’re in the performing industry. There are plenty of unexplored dance communities in new cities and performing jobs that stay in one place if moving is no longer an option. Supplemental income is more possible with the rise in remote jobs and moveable pick-your-own-hours apps like Instacart, therefore the time between contracts can be a more manageable burden.
As a society, we’re hopefully beyond the thought that having children and continuing your dance career is impossible, mainly because of the mountains of proof that it’s doable. It obviously takes a strong desire, hard work, and knowing your body to achieve. Be forgiving, give yourself time, and don’t compare yourself to an Instagrammer who lost the pregnancy weight in a month. If you want to take time off (and can afford to) take all the time you need for your family. Dance will still be there when you get back.
Match your appearance to the role
We can’t deny that most of the population is either wanting or actively trying to look younger. The obsession with youth goes beyond the dance industry and is ingrained in our society. Nothing I say will change that, but strides have been made since, and the dance industry is beginning to look different. Casting processes many years ago had their very specific perceived view of who they thought audiences would find attractive. Now audiences want something interesting, diverse, and different. “Attractive” years ago may have only meant “early 20’s,” but it now includes everyone’s most confident self.
Working in the entertainment industry where your look directly impacts your “bookability.” Your height, race, body-type, style, and hair; age plays a big factor in casting, or should I say, “perceived age.” For some dance jobs it doesn’t matter how old you appear, and for some it most certainly does. Namely, any musical with a chorus of faux high schoolers requires a specific look. Not every 40-year-old can play a high school freshman, but if you can extend the age range you can portray, the more jobs you will qualify for. The more jobs in which you qualify for, the greater chance that you’ll remain a booking professional for a longer amount of time.
With the advancement of knowledge, we have countless additional ways to elongate our “perceived age.” It’s a great era to be performing because skincare and makeup made enormous strides in the last 20 years, which can be a deal-breaker in a dancer’s bookability. If you’re consistent with your skincare, you can elongate your age range. With the abundance of online tutorials, there’s no excuse not to know a flattering makeup look for your face that matches each role. When I play a high schooler, it means adding light to the face and subtracting shadows. Makeup aside, if the role is youthful, dance as such. We’ve studied movement our entire lives, so if the role calls for being energetic and vibrant, showcase those qualities. Do whatever is in your control to make age just a number.
Trying to de-age is taking away all the incredible traits one gains through years of experience, and those traits are some the dance world needs.
Don’t listen to anyone but yourself
Non-dancers don’t always understand the dance world, we know this. I’m never surprised to hear off-kilter comments from them and it’s always their lucky day, because they just joined my 5-minute course on “why it’s not nice to say that.” Why shame someone for wanting to continue presenting art to audiences? Sounds lovely to me.
But more often than makes sense, comments are made by other dancers and dance industry professionals. I vividly remember specific comments from a dance teacher, a dance friend who didn’t dance professionally, and a choreographer who actually said, “It’s time to figure out what’s next.” That last comment came when I was 27, now 5 years ago. The jobs I’ve taken since are where I’ve performed some of my best work. I’ll never understand why he was trying to retire me at 27, but I’m glad I didn’t listen. Though more educated about dance, they all lacked the ability to understand what is foreign to their own life. Luckily, it’s mine and nobody else has to understand.
Amid the countless reasons why dancers are staying in the industry longer than in the past, we’re very lucky to live in the era where it’s happening and we’re rethinking the question: does age matter? We’re supported by a diverse industry, advancements in science, and flexible life options if you choose to take advantage of them. If you’re physically, mentally, and financially capable of having a long dance career, make the decision to ignore the outdated stereotypes, because we live in a very different world in 2022. You’re bringing countless wonderful qualities to audiences that you didn’t have ten years ago and you will continue to gain the longer you persist. You are the only person who can decide when you want to retire, if even at all!