Grappling With the Grief of Saying Goodbye to Your Dance Career

August 3, 2021

I didn’t even want to leave the house. I had made the decision to move on from my dance career, but I still wasn’t sure what I was moving on to. I hadn’t anticipated the identity crisis, and I didn’t know how to face the professional world as anything other than a dancer.

It took about a year of throwing things at the wall and hoping they’d stick before I started to understand who I was becoming. I’d grown passionate about mentorship and career development as a college dance educator, and I eventually found new work as a career coach for an educational technology company. Still, I wish I’d had more guidance to help me through all the emotional complexities I faced during my transition.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. Many retiring dancers experience these same feelings. After you’ve invested so much time and energy into becoming the best artist you can be, leaving that behind to start over in another profession can feel confusing and even unmanageable. For many, a career change isn’t just about finding new work—it’s about finding a new version of yourself, too. Fortunately, with the right resources, support groups and expert advice, dancers can exit their careers with the same grace they used to build it.

Expect to Experience Stages of Grief

“There’s a lot of grief involved in leaving a career in dance,” notes Dr. Miriam Rowan, who spent six years as a company member of San Francisco Ballet before becoming a licensed clinical psychologist and a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School. Dancers will often have a lot of confusion and may feel a loss of community, a loss of identity, a loss of feelings of status and anxiety while grappling with the unknown, she says.

You’ve likely pushed past your fair share of rejection when building your dance career, so it may feel normal to keep forcing yourself through this, too. But Patch Schwadron, a former ballet dancer who is the career counselor supervisor at The Career Center of The Actors Fund—a nonprofit that offers career, transition, financial and mental health support to dancers—recommends that dancers resist the impulse to just keep moving. Instead, sit still long enough to process what you’re feeling. “It’s complicated,” she says. “I’m going into this limbo existence where I don’t know who I am and no one else knows who I am, and it all has to be processed.”

Build a Strong Support System

Kaylee Randall, whose performing credits included Royal Caribbean, Vegas! The Show at Saxe Theater at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas, and Universal Studios Florida, sought both professional and peer support during her transition in 2018. “I did have a therapist who was helping me figure out what I wanted,” she says, “but I also wanted to talk to other dancers who were going through the same thing.”

For her, it was the loss of community that was the hardest part of retirement. Seeing the shows and activities her friends were doing without her made her feel isolated. So she launched Pivot for Dancers, a virtual resource where dancers in international communities can find information on transitioning careers, and connect with one another through a Facebook group or virtual meetups.

Talking with other people experiencing the same challenges can help dancers combat loneliness and find encouragement for the road ahead. During the pandemic, all of The Actors Fund support became virtual, allowing greater access to dancers located around the country. The organization now offers a national support group for dancers via Zoom. The eight-week experience, led by resident licensed clinical social worker Mario I. Espinoza, provides a safe space for dancers to talk to one another and share their challenges.

Change the Way You Think About the Transition

Dancers need to remember that it’s their career that’s ending, not their relationship with dance. Schwadron coaches her clients to find ways to nurture their inner dancer even through their transition. In my current work, for instance, I often introduce myself as a former dancer—I’m intentional about not hiding my dance background, which makes me feel like I’m not hiding parts of myself.

More often than not, former dancers find that their time in the studio plays a major role in how they approach their second careers. “Wherever you go, the dancer goes with you,” Schwadron says. “I think there’s such a fear that you’re going to leave the dancer behind, and that’s just not true.”

Rowan often works with her clients from a lens of either embracing the uncertainty of a career transition or by helping them modify their attitude about it. “It’s about coming into the transition with curiosities about oneself,” she explains, “and reframing it as an exciting, unfolding process.”

She encourages dancers to think about their favorite things that dance has given them, then find similar outlets that evoke those same feelings or experiences. If you loved wearing different costumes, for example, think about how you can bring that into your daily life. Maybe it’s finding new accessories that excite you or choosing outfits to help you express yourself the way costumes helped tell the story of a dance piece.

See Dance as One Part of Your Identity, Not the Whole of It

Successfully navigating a career change has so much to do with how you see yourself. When your identity is anchored in the work you do and then you decide to change that work, then it only makes sense that crises could ensue. To overcome that, both Schwadron and Rowan recommend dancers do a self-assessment of their core values and interests outside of performing. Start with questions like “What interests me?” and “What do I care about?” Dancers can benefit from exploring those things—like family or social causes—that bring meaning and purpose to their lives, says Rowan. “There’s no harm in thinking of oneself as a whole person who also dances,” she says.

Randall, who now works as a freelance writer focused on fitness, wellness, dance and self-development, admits her transition was a struggle. But by exploring interests she developed in college, she now enjoys her life after dance. “I loved that time in my life,” she shares, recalling the experiences her dance career afforded her. “I’ve grown so much since then, and I really love this chapter, as well.”