Retired at 40? What ballet dancers can teach us about retirement

People approaching retirement face a myriad of challenges, ranging from purely financial issues to the larger question of how to make the most of the next chapter in life. But imagine facing those same challenges while you were still in your 30s or 40s.

Such is the destiny of the ballet dancer.

Most dancers have relatively short stage careers, usually beginning in their teens and lasting no more than two decades. As is the case with athletes, their body just doesn’t fit the bill after a certain point. When that moment arrives, it can be an overwhelming reality.

“I felt like I wasn’t an angel anymore,” Steven Caras, a former New York City Ballet dancer, said of his retirement in 1983.

But if nothing else, the dancers are adaptable. Many pursue thriving second careers – some stay in the dance world as educators or administrators, while others choose entirely new professions ranging from social work to medicine. Some of this is driven by necessity: Unlike many athletes, ballet dancers don’t earn particularly high salaries – the average salary is $69,000, according to to a report – so they can’t just stop working when they walk away from the stage.

Caras is living proof of what a dancer can do after retiring from the stage: he has worked in various capacities with non-profit cultural organizations, including ballet companies, while becoming a popular photographer specializing in dance. (In fact, her life after dancing has been the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary“Steven Caras: Seeing Them Dance”.)

We recently spoke with a number of retired New York City Ballet dancers, as well as other professionals in the field, to see what lessons they learned from leaving dream careers at a relatively young age. And just as important: what these lessons might mean for those of us contemplating retirement – ​​or at least that next chapter – at a later age.

Prepare early for what awaits you

In a sense, a dancer needs to start thinking about retirement almost as soon as they start their career, say many in the field. It’s the surest way to secure employment — and especially meaningful employment — in a post-dance life. “I worked hard to get somewhere in the dance world and wanted the same thing I left,” says Gonzalo Garcia, a New York City Ballet company member who quit this year at age 42.

For Garcia, the next thing is to work on the company’s artistic staff as a repertoire director, helping prepare works for the stage. He prepared to get there through years of teaching and coaching, which he did in tandem with his dancing. The point, he and others say, is to plant the seeds for your next move long before you need to make that move.

Gonzalo Garcia performing “Apollo” by Balanchine with the New York City Ballet

Paul Kolnik

Don’t be afraid to try something new

Teresa Reichlen has danced many major roles in works ranging from “Swan Lake” to Balanchine’s “Jewels” during her many years with New York City Ballet. But when she retired this year at 37, she decided on a completely different role: running an art gallery in New York in partnership with her husband, Scott Ogden, the company’s founder.

Reichlen says she was ready for a change, especially since it involved moving to a field that doesn’t rely on night work. “I kinda feel like 9 to 5” o’clock, she said. And she’s honed her administrative skills in part by taking on non-dance related projects in recent years — notably, raising money for a fund that has supported unemployed dancers during the pandemic. The experience also taught her that she could find professional satisfaction outside of the world of dance.

“I was thrilled to be able to use my mind in a different way,” Reichlen says.

Understand that your skills are applicable elsewhere

At first glance, it may seem that training as a dancer is best suited to a career in, well, dance. But the skills involved are ones that can be transferred across many fields, dance professionals say. “You have refined leadership, collaborative and analytical skills,” says Patricia (Patch) Schwadron, supervisor of the Actors Fund, a nonprofit that works with performing artists, including dancers, to help them plan career transitions.

Take advantage of different resources

Speaking of the Actors Fund, he offers numerous workshops and seminars for dancers approaching retirement, as well as individual counseling. It also offers scholarships to dancers who wish to continue their studies.

Dance companies are also doing their part. At New York City Ballet, Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford, himself a former dancer with the troupe, involves company members in the non-performance aspects of the organization so they can gain invaluable experience that could prepare them for their next career. “We just try to find as many opportunities as possible to challenge them,” he says.

Not that the same opportunities for career exploration are offered in all fields. But dance professionals stress that it’s always worth seeking out what transition assistance you can get.

Former New York City Ballet dancer Steven Caras left the company and embarked on careers in the nonprofit world and as a renowned dance photographer.

Edouard Schneider

Accept the realities

There’s no candy about retirement being tough — and maybe even more so when your career is about hearing people applaud your performance every night. The key to overcoming this is understanding that you’ll need time to adapt, dance pros say. “There must be a period of mourning. No one is okay with not being a dancer anymore,” says Patricia Schwadron.

Know that you can come back – one way or another

Just because a dancer “retires” doesn’t mean they have to stop dancing forever. Many return to the stage for occasional roles. Teresa Reichlen hasn’t ruled out the possibility, though she says she needs “a little space” before she can consider any role.

Likewise, Gonzalo Garcia says he hopes to continue playing “whenever I can find an opportunity that feels right to me.” As he concludes, “Once a dancer always a dancer.”

Colleen D. Ervin