By Diane Claytor
According to the US Government, through its Social Security payments, the “official” retirement age is 66; a recent Gallup poll showed that 37% of working Americans plan to work past age 65, 26% expect to retire at 65 and 26% plan on leaving the workforce before they turn 65. But for the professional dancer, retirement comes far earlier – according to dance.net, the average retirement age is 35. Then what?
Unfortunately, the reason most dancers – and particularly ballet dancers — retire at such a young age is their bodies simply can no longer withstand the rigors of their profession. Whether they’ve endured injuries throughout their careers or begin losing some of the incredible physical strength and flexibility needed to dance, they find that the difficult decision of whether to go on comes much earlier than they wanted, much earlier than they may have ever expected.
Karen Portner-LaPointe, a former member of Diablo Ballet, knows exactly what this feels like.
Growing up in the East Bay, Karen began taking ballet lessons at 9 years old. And she loved it…every part of it. She went to Berkeley High School where she was able to attend classes from 7 a.m. until noon and then she danced – and danced — 6 days a week, at least four hours a day.
And all that dancing paid off.
At 17, Karen moved to New York for an intensive summer program at the Joffrey Ballet School. She was invited to perform with the world famous Joffrey Ballet and stayed there for 2 ½ years. For the next 20-plus years, Karen was a soloist and principal dancer with the Eglevsky Ballet, Nashville Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet. And during that time, Karen endured – and often danced through — numerous injuries; she underwent several surgeries and began to realize that “dancing is a short lived career.”
Also during this time, Karen met and married another ballet dancer, Sylvain LaPointe. Sylvain also endured several serious injuries and surgeries – which, after 10 years of dancing, ended his professional career at the ripe old age of 30.
In the mid-90’s, after dancing for approximately 20 years, Karen began to wonder how much longer she could continue. She was a member of the Milwaukee Ballet Company but unable to dance because of ankle surgery; her husband was no longer dancing, and the Company was undergoing big changes. “My contract wasn’t renewed because, they said, the organization was ‘being revamped’. So now I have no job, a cast on my foot, no other ballet opportunities in Milwaukee and I didn’t know what to do,” Karen said.
With a job offer in the Bay Area for Sylvain, the couple returned to California. At this point, Karen is 30 years old, injured and figuring she probably won’t dance again. But she applies to, and is offered a position with, Diablo Ballet, where she spends the next four years.
“Now I’m thinking, ok, I’m getting old. I want to start a family,” Karen says. Having taken Pilates classes over the years, and attributing much of her successful rehab to their training methods, Karen obtained her Pilates certification, opened her Pilates Studio, Fine Line Fitness and began teaching at one of the local ballet schools. After her daughter was born, Karen had a decision to make: “do I go back to dancing, making half as much money as I’m making as a Pilates instructor knowing that my time as a dancer is limited because, after all, I’m getting older and well, my body is what it is.” And that was it. She opted to retire from professional dancing (although she did perform with Diablo Ballet on occasion) while in her mid-30’s.
“I miss it enormously – the performing,” Karen said. “I mean every aspect of it. I have not officially performed since 2004. And I can honestly say that until about a year ago, I had not fully wrapped my brain around retirement. I couldn’t be at a ballet performance without sobbing uncontrollably.”
About a year ago, Diablo Ballet presented The Moor’s Pavane, a ballet that Karen had performed several times. “It had been the highlight of my career,” Karen noted, “and I went to see the show. I cry still just thinking about it. I loved it so much.” She felt the same way about Romeo and Juliet. Having danced the role of Juliet many times, “I could not watch the SF Ballet perform it. Just hearing the music makes me cry.”
“The thing is,” Karen continued, “the dancing is so much your identity. It’s your world, your people, your language. To spend all day with people like yourself and then you’re out in the world and no one really gets you. Pilates was a wonderful transition for me, it was as good as it could possibly be although nothing will ever replace the dance. Never. Ever.”
A friend of Karen’s reminded her that identity is constantly evolving. “I didn’t get that until about a year ago,” Karen said. “I kept thinking dance is all I am. If I’m not that anymore, what am I.”
So many dancers become totally immersed in their passion at an early age that, when they do retire while still so young, they don’t know what to do or even how to do anything else. Most, like Karen, begin their professional dancing careers as teenagers. They didn’t go to college, hadn’t trained for anything else. And when their career is over, it can be devastating.
Twenty-eight years ago, a non-profit organization was formed to help dancers as they transitioned. Career Transition for Dancers is the nation’s only career counseling agency serving professional dancers. Its mission is to help dancers “take their first steps in discovering rewarding second careers.”
A 2010 study, “Retirement Transition in Ballet Dancers” and reported on qualitative-research.net, quoted a male dancer, Luke, who retired at 35 years old. “…I didn’t think I had any skills…I didn’t realize what a great part of my life my career was until I didn’t have it anymore…If I wasn’t dancing, who was I.”
Karen experienced some other strong emotions after retiring. She remembers thinking, “Why did I waste all this time doing ballet. I have nothing to show for it. I don’t have a retirement plan. I don’t have stock options.” But she also acknowledged that if she had to do it all again, she definitely would. “I might do it a little differently,” she noted. “I would probably take more risks, be braver. But I wouldn’t give up those experiences, going out on tour…just the life in the theater is pretty special.”
Not all dancers have a difficult time with retirement. Karen said her husband, Sylvain, got over it quickly and moved on. “He doesn’t miss it nearly as much as I do,” Karen said. “However, he’ll talk about his dance career all the time, it’s one of his fondest memories.”
At 48 years old, Karen still has the dancer’s body. Tall, slender and graceful, she takes dance classes, runs, and works out at the gym regularly. “I have to do that. I have to stay in shape,” she said. “I have to have time for myself. Working on my body calms my nerves, reminds me a little of how I felt when I was performing. It’s a drug. It feeds my soul. I go to the gym, take a class and the endorphins kick in.”
Like Karen, who is still teaching Pilates and teaching ballet to children, many retired dancers stay in this field for which they have so much passion and experience: teaching dance or choreographing, forming local dance companies or opening dance studios. Some become college students and go into entirely different professions. But you’d probably be hard pressed to find any that don’t remember their professional dance years as the best times of their lives.
On the website californiaballet.org, a 2012 blog post stated, “Dancers do what they do because of an undying passion for the art form and an unrelenting love for what they do. Injuries, emotions and sacrifices aside, most dancers cannot see themselves doing anything else. And that short career? That just means that they have to work twice as hard to get as much out of their career as they possibly can before they reach that early retirement age.”
And Karen now is reliving her dancing years through her 13 year old daughter, who is very serious about her ballet dancing. “Having my daughter be in the ballet world is bringing back so many wonderful memories. I don’t want to ever forget that. It made me who I am. In every piece of my day, ballet is there. It’s in my DNA,” Karen concluded.
Learn more about Diablo Ballet by clicking here
Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates. She’s a staunch believer in arts education and is extremely impressed with Diablo Ballet’s PEEK program, ensuring that children of all economic levels have the opportunity to experience the power of dance.