Having begun my dance career in my late teens, I successfully bypassed the student debt many Americans face when they take out loans for college. For seven seasons, I had a cushy job dancing in the corps at Pacific Northwest Ballet. During that time I put nearly $50,000 towards my 401(k), saved an additional $10,000 in my bank account and used a dancer-run grant program to fund my associate of arts degree with a business focus from a local community college. I was proud of my fiscal responsibility and felt that I could easily survive a financial shortfall. But I had no idea how much debt I would accrue as I transitioned from performing to teaching and choreographing.
After leaving PNB to stretch my artistry in a small contemporary company, an injury cost me my job and I ended up freelancing. During this four-year period of feast-or-famine work, I completely drained my $10,000 emergency fund. I spent the final year of my freelance career suffering severe bouts of anxiety. The financial pressure was so intense that I developed a lump in my throat, my asthma was constantly activated by stress and I was convinced my heart would stop. After suffering a panic attack at Lincoln Center before watching a show, I chose to start putting money on my credit card. I would rather be in debt than allow my stress levels to endanger my health.
Although Kerollis' teaching and choreographing work has picked up, he's still paying off the debt incurred during his career transition. Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy Barry Kerollis
Around this time, I suffered a career-ending injury and began a slow, drawn-out 20 transition off the stage. The timing couldn't have been worse. Even though I had worked hard to protect my finances, freelancing had wiped that cushion clean.
I know other dancers who have faced this dilemma. It is common knowledge that most of us will become injured at some point in our careers. At the same time, most dancers' salaries leave little room to save for times like these. For the majority of us who do not take our final bows with a job already lined up, we have to decide between taking any work that pays the bills or living on a shoestring budget to dedicate our whole focus towards our next dream job.
My vision for the second stage of my career was clear: I wanted to teach and choreograph for renowned institutions, educate audiences and have time to travel when choreography commissions came my way. I began keeping a secret: I quietly supplemented the small income I received from teaching gigs with money from my 401(k) and credit card. In a candid moment with a friend, I felt demoralized when they scoffed at me, saying I should get a job waiting tables. After that, I rarely shared how I was funding my transition.
Now that I have established the second part of my career, it would be easy to only share the good parts: that I'm on faculty at Broadway Dance Center; that I was commissioned to choreograph for Elisabeth Beyer, this year's Youth America Grand Prix senior grand prix winner and USA International Ballet Competition junior gold winner; or that I have written articles for major dance publications like this one. Although I am making great strides in mending my finances, the reality is that I am paying off the $35,000 debt from my transition.
I still wonder if choosing non-dance work could have prevented me from taking on so much debt. When looking back on my decision to stubbornly focus on my career change, I remind myself that working an entry-level job in an outside field may have left me in the same amount of debt and could have significantly delayed my movement into full-time teaching and choreographing. I will never know which avenue would have been the fastest and incurred the least debt. But I have no regrets for walking the path that I have.