6 Lessons I learned from Quitting Dance

As an ex-dancer I often get sucked into clicking links for blog posts such as 6 Things Being A Dancer Has Taught Me About Life and 7 Valuable Life Lessons You Learn From Being A Dancer.

Side note: Take a gander at both of those articles. There is definitely some plagiarism going on.

Ballet is a big part of what made me who I am. For a long time, I felt that being a dancer was the most important part about me. I am grateful for the opportunities I had to train and perform, and I cherish the memories. Plus, if not for ballet, I might not know what plastic Nutcracker “snow” tastes like or some unexpected uses for duct tape and dental floss. I might not be familiar with the magical properties of jet glue, or appreciate what it feels like to have the fumes enter my eye. Most importantly, I might not know what is wrong with this picture:

Still, quitting dance has taught me a lot about life, too.

1. Life is full of new challenges.

Both authors of the articles I referenced above claim that pointe class is the one true way to understand the meaning of perseverance. The version in 6 Things Being A Dancer Has Taught Me About Life says:

“I’m 100% convinced that if you haven’t taken a pointe class in your life, you don’t know the real meaning of perseverance.”

Um…

First, she loses credibility when she later says, “…standing on a block of wood on your tiptoes for an hour…” I’ve taken hundreds of pointe classes, and that’s not really what happens. (Pointe shoes are not made of wood!)

Second, anyone who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro without limbs, eaten 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes or sat through the entire movie Elizabethtown knows a thing or two about perseverance. It turns out that life is full of wonderful opportunities to both learn and display stick-to-itiveness, as Stephen Colbert would call it.

When I was a dancer I was terrified that I might damage my body and ruin my career, so I avoided activities where I might gain a pound twist my ankle or stub my toe. Since giving up ballet I have hiked to the top of the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, carried a 40 pound backpack across the Grand Canyon, and drank copious amounts of high calorie beer. Last June, when I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim for the second time, I think I achieved a new record for number of blisters my feet have ever had at one time. For me ballet was undeniably a test of my ability to persistence through pain, fatigue, injury and self-doubt, but now that I don’t dance I can fearlessly find new ways to test my gangsta. Plus, I haven’t taken a pointe class in 5 years, but I still think doing 100 push ups would be harder.

Mt. Elbert.jpg

Mount Elbert

The Grand Canyon

That’s me in the picture above. Are you impressed by the lack of turn-out? I can’t get into fifth position anymore, but I can walk like a regular person now.

2. It’s ok to quit.

When I was 17-years-old I decided to turn down a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in order to attend a more-expensive private school so that I could major in dance with an emphasis in ballet. I also decided to try a pixie haircut, indicating that I wasn’t always making the best decisions at this point in my life.

Photo courtesy of Britney Spears 2007

I was very interested in studying science too, but I felt that I just couldn’t quit dancing. I wanted to prove myself. I decided to major in dance, but I convinced my parents myself that it would be OK because I would also take the four science classes that are the minimum requirement for pursuing medical school. I had the naïve expectation that it would be possible to fit one of these science course into my schedule each year. When I arrived on campus and met with the director to sign up for classes, she told me that none of the science courses fit into my strict dance schedule (freshman year or any year) and that there was no way they could accommodate me. She said, “If you are going to be a dance major you need to be 100% committed” and implied that wanting to take biology and chemistry suggested I wasn’t committed to dancing. I was very committed to dancing; I just like the idea of having a Plan B in case my leg fell off (I’ve dreamed that before. And yes, I realize now that medical school as a back up plan is unrealistic). I reassured the director and myself that I was committed only to dancing, and I signed up for only my dance classes. Then I went into the bathroom and cried. I cried too much my freshman year in my college years to the point where everyone knew me to be emotionally unstable. The truth is I was often overwhelmed with the fear that I was going to fail. I wondered if I should change majors to pursue a more financially stable career, but each time I thought this, I convinced myself that dance was something I couldn’t quit. I had to prove myself. True passion means ignoring cognitive dissonance just to prove you are not a quitter, right?

The Great Recession began in December 2007, and I graduated with a dance degree and chronic butt hip pain five months later. I drained my savings account traveling around the country to audition for unpaid positions in ballet companies. I was so excited to accept a position with Tulsa Ballet’s second company. That year in Tulsa was eye-opening. I had amazing opportunities to perform with the main company, but I was in constant pain. By Christmas 2008 I almost couldn’t touch my toes with my knee bent, and I was paying for medical scans, physical therapy and treatments (like an injection into my hip joint performed using x-rays) with my credit card. I worked at a hotel when I wasn’t dancing, but I was completely broke. I am still thankful for the generosity of fellow dancers and their parents for gifting me money so I could buy food. I lived on Top Ramen, Hamburger Helper and McChicken sandwiches. This was my apartment:

I no longer feared that I would fail at a dance career because it was already happening. I started to realize that eating, my health and paying my utility bills were things that I couldn’t quit, but that dance wasn’t in that category anymore. The doctors didn’t know what to do about my injuries and started suggesting I quit dance or have surgery to repair my labral tears and cut my piriformis muscle. Soon I enjoyed working at the hotel more than dancing. I quit caring about proving myself or worrying about not having a back up plan. I just wanted stability. I quit dancing and got another job. Then I heard that some jobs give you paid vacation and health insurance, so I quit my two jobs and got a better job. Unfortunately I read the entire Twilight series before I became proficient in knowing when to quit, but I get better at this skill every day. I quit crying. I quit worrying and being afraid. Heck, I even quit finished paying off my student loans.

3. Life is pain…anyone who says differently is selling something.

I actually learned that from The Princess Bride.

After quitting dance, however, I did learn about dealing with chronic pain. I decided not to get surgery, but five years of not doing ballet has helped a lot. The sciatica flares up often, especially when I exercise, sit or get sick. I also get a lot of discomfort in my right quad, but for the most part I find that ignoring it works surprisingly well. I’ve had enough medical tests done to know that Madonna was wrong and that pain is not always a warning that something’s wrong. Sometime pain and discomfort is just that, pain and discomfort.

4. Many people are not obsessively dedicated to their jobs and that is OK.

Serious dancers work really hard every day. This is not a trait that is exclusive to dancers, but I have witnessed this quality in most professional level dancers. They don’t call in sick unless they are withering away from ebola an apocalyptic hybrid of mononucleosis and hepatitis. If they snap their ACL or break their ankle they still go to the studio and practice port de bras with a big cast on their leg. Where is that dancer who stepped on a stick and impaled both her flip flop and foot? She is at the studio, of course. Furthermore, dancers will be obsessively dedicated to this level with no monetary compensation. Those who do get paid must continuously prove that they are equally obsessed and reliable; because they know that there is a whole horde of other dancers working for no pay hoping to eat their brain replace them.

Dedication like that doesn’t just go away when you throw away the pointe shoes. I have accumulated more than six weeks of combined sick leave and annual leave, yet I still felt too guilty to call in sick when I had pinkeye. This level of dedication is not expected or even rewarded at my current employment. I won’t get fired if I take a vacation. I won’t get a raise or a promotion because I come to work with the flu; people just get annoyed that I am exposing them to disgusting germs. Just like I am learning it is ok to quit, I also am learning that it is ok to take 15 a day off.

1 million seconds of PTO

5. A black leotard and pink tights isn’t the formula for discipline, but I don’t know what is.

First, let me explain that I understand that ballet teachers don’t want their students showing up to class looking like this

I concede that tight-fitting clothing is necessary. With that stated, I am prepared to call bullsh*t on the ballet class student dress code. Let’s start with pink tights. If pink tights help the teacher see the line of the dancer’s leg, why do male dancers wear black tights? Nobody wants to see men’s legs. It seems to me that pink tights have some kind of subtly racist undertone and dancers have been wearing them for so long that nobody questions it. Besides, why wear tights at all? Can you really see legs better when they are wrapped in pink than when they are bare?

I just can’t tell if her legs are straight!

I’ve also heard the argument that dancers should wear tights because they put pressure on veins and tendons and supports the legs. I don’t know what brand of compression stockings these people are wearing but it isn’t the Capezios that I used to buy.

bare legs, no tights.

with tights. hot dogs or legs?

Alright fine, classical ballets require pink tights on stage, so it is good to wear tights while practicing. But why the black leotard? Since different schools demand different leotard colors I assume nobody thinks that the color black is particularly magical. A dress code is just supposed to instill discipline and improve performance, right? But there is no evidence that uniforms do that. I don’t only bring up this topic to complain about 20 years of being told I had to wear pink tights and a black leotard, but also because I wish being discipline was as simple as putting on the right outfit.

After quitting dance I have tried to stay healthy and active, but I find it difficult to stay motivated. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as putting on a black leotard or a pair of pink tights (black and white stripes don’t work either). I wear my workout clothes to lounge in rather than to go for a jog. When I danced the idea of “being a dancer” and performing on stage motivated me to work hard. Now I struggle to find a reason to get off my couch.

Being motivated and self-disciplined requires setting goals and self-coaching. I find that repeating the mantra, “I don’t want osteoporosis” helps me the most.

What do my fiancé and I wear when we practice yoga in the living room? Nothing. None of your business.

6. Dancers are not better than non-dancers.

This last lesson is one of humility. When I was a dancer I felt like I was larger than life. I felt like I was really something special and much of my self-confidence was wrapped into that identity. Not only do you spend all day looking at yourself in a mirror, but you hear things like…

“Dancers are the athletes of God.” -Albert Einstein

Are we human or are we dancer?

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul…” -Martha Graham

…and you start to get a bit arrogant. When I quit dancing I felt like I was losing the coolest part about myself, but surprisingly people still liked me. Most importantly, I still liked me.

Maybe the hidden language of the soul is knitting? Or Klingon?

And I leave you with this picture of me trying to still be a dancer (and pulling a hammy) at the bottom of the Grand Canyon:

Ribbon Falls in the Grand Canyon

25 thoughts on “6 Lessons I learned from Quitting Dance

  1. This is absolutely fantastic. All the words I was always thinking but never said out loud. When others don’t get it , I’ll pull this out ! So well said. Thanks ! Refreshing to see others embrace the “non dancer”
    – Sarah

  2. A great deal of wisdom has been gleaned during thus tenure of a dancer.

    Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of a noble education. Dancing with the feet, the mind, and ideas….

  3. You made a lot of great points, However coming from someone who decided to continue with my dance career, I think Some of the points you made eluded to the idea that dancers don’t actually experience life and adventure, which is very untrue. in addition, the dance world you mention is a very small portion of what it actually is. The strict academy/conservatory rules of ballet are 3% of what the dance world has to offer, and in fact the majority of the dancers I know and have worked with have traveled all over the U.S., Europe, Isreal, and many of them are also very stable and have homes and cars and families (if that’s what they want). Being a dancer is not for everyone and it doesn’t make someone better than a non-dancer by ANY means, but writing blogs about how dancers can’t drink beer, hike, have stability, or wear something other than tights and a leo does not do the community justice at all.

    • Hi Clare, thanks for your comment. I don’t believe she was saying you CAN’T do things like drink beer or hike, but that once not dancing professionally, she is free to pursue those things with a carefree spirit. Also, she is writing about her experience and at our college, we were required to wear leo’s and tights. On this site I try to cover many angles of the dance world. From what I have learned in speaking with dancers and choreograhers across many styles and circumstances is how incredibly varied one person’s experience is from the next, even within the same company or community. She is entitled to share her experience as it is a valid representation of the dance community. Glad that yours must have been different.

    • I would have to disagree. I do believe that she is talking about the majority of classical ballet dancers and no you cannot go hiking an drink beer in leisure or wear something other than tights and less during most performances. and yes…you feel special when you are a dancer…Absolutely! you feel as if you are in a secret society…love this blog post….so en pointe!

  4. Very refreshing honesty! As a current dancer, I like to believe that I have learned some valuable stuff, but it’s also good to get a “you are not a magical special snowflake” reminder every once in awhile 🙂

    But for some reason, #4 still continues to shock me whenever I listen to “normal” people talk about their career/major/job as if it’s not their ultimate purpose in life or whatever. The concept of just doing something decently well in order to get payed still seems kind of…bizarre to me.

    • Thanks for your comment- As someone who spent the past year in a full-time job (dancing on the side) where I was paid/treated quite well but not always invested was bizarre, to say the least. Depresssing is probably more accurate!

  5. Reblogged this on Life of a Country Girl and commented:
    I did ballet ever since I can remember. When I got to college, it was really hard for me to keep going. I didn’t want to quit because it is something that has always been a part of me. After a few semesters, I realized I wasn’t as happy anymore doing ballet. I finally quit. My body has thanked me for it, my hips and knees don’t hurt nearly as bad as they used to. I am still dancing, just not ballet. I have found that I really enjoy ballroom dancing. I had a lot of these same feelings and thoughts when I quit, but I did learn many lessons from my years in ballet.

  6. I am a dance teacher. I did all of the same crap and came to the same conclusions years ago. I like the part about teaching something valuable to kids and that I feel like a useful member of society because I spent so much time on trying to get a job that my technique got pretty good. I also really like kids. Dance actually led me to a better little career in Pilates. Sometimes I look back and wonder how the hell I thought I could ever get classical work. I was too damn tall! If I could do it all again I would never have gone into ballet or had a BFA in dance, but at almost 50 I have to feel like I am here for a reason and I am able to influence the next groups positively. It is all I can do at this point and I am lucky to still make a living off my art.

  7. Thanks to dance, I survived an abusive and downright weird childhood. Being at the studio gave me a reason to keep going. Reaching up for the highest extension in arabesque, trying to get one more rotation in pirouette, following the exact, precise movements of my teachers in ronde-de-jambe floor exercises kept me out of my own head, and so I survived. Years later I discovered it had also contributed to the causes of my eating disorder, but I digress. It’s part of how I got here. Having to give it up nearly killed me emotionally, but thank goodness for that double major. Madame Haydar hadn’t given us the “100% committed” speech; she wanted us to all grow as people and if dance was only a part of our lives, that was fine with her. I still wish it was part of mine. I do yoga instead. It isn’t the same. But I see and feel every single thing you wrote here. I just wish I could have gone out with as much aplomb.

  8. This article is so timely for me. I come from the totally different perspective of a mother to a beautiful 15-year old dancer who recently abruptly quit ballet after 11 years. She was on a pre-pro track, having won scholarships to prestigious summer intensives and possessing all the natural physical goods to make it. But something inside her shifted and she became unhappy, burned out, and decided she wanted a social life and to explore other pursuits. As her mom, I was devastated. The beautiful world of ballet I had a front row seat to was suddenly ripped away from me. I won’t lie: I have shed tears many times over it – over what I’d envisioned for her, over what could’ve been. I know I sound selfish; I understand it’s her life. But as her mom it became part of my world, too, and it makes me so sad that she will never fulfill her potential after so much hard work. Reading this gave me a glimpse into what her own interior world must have felt like when she made this decision and has given me a new perspective. Thank you.

    • It helped me to read the article and also to see the above reply from another Mother. I have felt so alone as a Mom, and guilty that I am being selfish for how I am feeling. I know how hard the ballerina life can be. My 21 year old daughter had 2 tears in her labrum and had 2 hip surgeries by age 20. Ballet stopped as she graduated from high school, but she cried and had many years of grieving her ballet past. Hard then to watch as her younger sister jumped ahead being invited to every ballet school she auditioned for.
      3 years have passed and now the younger one, age 17 has suddenly and abruptly gave up her ballet after dancing at several prestigious ballet schools. She missed home, friends, and became so sad and full of anxiety. She is a beautiful dancer yet she began to second guess herself, her body and her ability. Next year she could audition for companies….what happened? Like the Mom above, I am supportive of her decision (it has also created several eating issues),but I too miss my “Mom ballet world”. I thought it was her dream which I only tried to support, but her dream became sad as she dreaded looking at herself in the mirror. She once had looked so happy and I loved watching her dance, and then something changed. My heart is sad for the world in which became part of my life for so many years. But I also know the reality of her pain and anxiety are not worth her life. I know these years happened for a reason. And I know her life ahead will be filled with things she has always had to say no to, (either no time or worrying she could be hurt for dance.) She plans to go back and finish her senior year of high school and apply to college (no dance major). I know how much courage this took for her to leave. She was so worried to leave. I feel she did not “quit” – she just needed to take care of herself and find happiness again. Thank you for your article. I appreciate reading others insight on their similar journey. Good Luck!

      • My daughter, 16 and invited to attend a prestigious program from one of the big ballet companies, has decided to not accept the invite and stop the pre-pro track. She will still dance….just nor the pre-pro level. She wants a normal high school life, and go to college not for dance.

        I am so glad to read the comments from the other mothers because I have felt heartbroken and selfish that she is ending this path. I have loved watching her perform. I have loved this world. There si loss for us as well….but it is her life, and I have fully supported her decision. I fear she will regret the decision….but there in lies one of the challenges of life. Sometimes it is braver to walk away then to stay.

  9. Thank you for the input and insight.

    My daughter has returned from a summer intensive that resulted in her getting asked to stay for their year round program. This from one of the big companies in the US. She has decided not to attend, and get off the pre-pro track.

    It is helpful for me to read other mothers’ input, and not feel so alone in my heartbreak. No, it wasn’t my dream, but I fully enjoyed the ride and absolutely love watching her dance. I have cried over this decision, selfishly for myself and even more for fear that she will regret this decision.

    Life is full of crossroads, and the most important thing I can do for my daughter is trust her introspection and support her decision.

  10. Love the comments from the ballet moms above as I am most sure the author probably did not expect this to turn into a mom “pity me” post (i mean this with love and lightheartedly) but I guess it is a place where we need to vent as well. Maybe we need an “ex ballet mom” message board just for us. 🙂

    My daughter has been part of a prestigious ballet school since she was 5 and has been in the pre-professional tract for the past two years. Now that she is almost 15 years old, she has decided that she cannot do this anymore because of the stress from school, the missing of her social life, the constant worry of her weight, and simply just not liking ballet anymore. She says she wants to audition for her school dance team and participate in the dance/theatre program at her high school. She had attended summer intensives the past few years at ABT orange county and been accepted to Houston as well, but this was the first year she has not auditioned! YIKES! However, I must admit to have your child out of your home an extra 25 hours a week, add school on top of that, when does a family see a ballet daughter? I realized that time goes by fast and if she was going to continue, her head would have to be in it or the sacrifice of time, money, and energy is surely not worth it. Because of this, I have slowly come to terms with her decision.

    Ballet has taught her focus, grace, and discipline and we will be forever grateful. I am hoping she will not regret it but she wants to continue to be on the stage and I will say I have not cried, but it is difficult to see things moving forward with her ballet friends and see her fall the other way behind. I digress. I submit. It is what it is but thanks for this blog post. It was informative, funny, and so very true.

    • If you aren’t enjoying yourself, but quitting feels like a scary, big decision I would try to talk about it with someone you trust- a parent, your teacher, maybe an older student at your studio who can tell you about the responsibilities of going further. They could offer insight and be a good source of support. Best of luck to you

  11. Pingback: The Next Step--Why I'm quitting my job as a professional ballet dancer | Carrot Cake Kitchen

  12. I believe in 100 years, humans will look back at much of what was expected of youth in academics and extracurriculars, and consider it abusive. The stress of it all can be cruel and inhumane requiring young people to pursue toxic, super human ‘perfection’ at all costs. . The emphasis should shift from being competitive and ‘the best’ to a more balanced, gentle approach of physical, mental, and emotional well being. After a long day at stressful school, students should be taught how to relax, enjoy life, and care for themselves physically and emotionally in a balanced manner. Today, youth activities force participants to be severely out of balance because it is often too insanely time consuming and competitive. In 100 years, this will no longer be how it is as, and some European countries have already evolved and figured it out. In Iceland, rest, relaxation, and pursuits for enjoyment are encouraged after school. Homework is not assigned. It’s toxic to derive one’s egoic sense of identity from being the best, unique, and special at this or that. This never leads to lasting satisfaction or happiness, and is like chasing a desert mirage as one accumulates emotional and physical pain or illness in this oppressive, perfectionistic, egoic pursuit. No pain, no gain is a toxic, harmful mentality. For example, football players have been speaking out in recent years at the insanity they must endure to become good….concussions, severe injuries, even death. Many youth activities in years to come will be regarded as being abusive, oppressive, and harmful as humanity continues to evolve and mature in its understanding of human health and well being. Just look around, dysfunction abounds…..youth depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cutting, sleep deprivation, stress related illness, suicide. We live in an often dysfunctional world, and many extreme-overly competitive youth sports-activities are certainly a reflection and manifestation of that underlying societal-collective sickness.

    • Hi Colleen- thank you for sharing your thoughts. Even as someone who grew up in a competitive dance and academic environment and did feel some benefits from the rigor, I completely agree with you. We can encourage students to enjoy and cultivate work ethic through much heathier practices by cultivating an environment conducive to well-being, both externally and with emotional cues. This is exactly what I’m researching currently! Thanks for visiting. -jess

  13. Hi Jess,
    I would agree with you as well that there can be benefits to some reasonable level of academic and extracurricular rigor like acquiring strengths in perseverance, goal setting, and dedication. The key is healthy, balanced, and ‘reasonable’ honoring the physical, mental, and emotional well being of the young people. Good for you researching this! We see that extreme overachieving and excessive competition often makes our youth sick, anxiety ridden, mentally ill, burned out, depressed, suicidal, physically injured, and hopeless. Taken this far, it’s collective insanity and will be regarded as such in the future. “We can encourage students to enjoy and cultivate work ethic through much heathier practices by cultivating an environment conducive to well-being, both externally and with emotional cues. ” Hopefully in a more evolved and enlightened future by collectively learning from past dysfunction, this will be understood!
    Thanks for an informative and enlightening post!
    Colleen

    • Hi Colleen- such a great post from my friend Emily. And I agree with your words on how competition, etc. can cause even highly-motivated people to become overly anxious and ill- in fact, that’s pretty much what happened to me as a teenager. What I am heavily researching now is how much of the illness and depression we see coming from our dance students is shaped by their environment and teacher impact as opposed to a genetic predisposition to mental and emotional illness. It’s fascinating and empowering as an educator! Wishing you the best- jess

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