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Reflections on life after dance

Posted on September 21, 2017

Back in July, I found myself in good company at a trendy event space overlooking crepuscular Shoreditch. My job has allowed me to rub shoulders with guests at glamorous occasions, but this evening was significant because it was my first interaction with Dancers’ Career Development (DCD), and I was swapping stories and clinking glasses with dancers who have been supported by the charity. September means back to school and back to work. We’re full of ideas for fresh endeavours, filled with vim about the prospects before us. Discovering DCD for this month’s blog could be more appropriately described as “back to the future”.

Dancers are abjectly aware of the transience of their dancing life, but there are few spaces to articulate feelings about life after performing. In this respect, DCD has an essential function within our sector. It’s a testament to the charity’s spirit that I was able to attend their London Alumni event: an off-the-cuff-email sent out of sheer curiosity facilitated an enthusiastic invitation. It illustrates DCD’s key message: they are here for all dancers across the UK, from any genre of dance, and at any stage in their career.

So what does a performance career leave you with? Many happy memories and many important skills, as described by Northern Ballet’s Gavin McCaig in June’s issue of Dancing Times. Yet sometimes you need guidance to understand the qualities grown within you. This is a need DCD has responded to. Originally established as The Dancers’ Resettlement Fund in 1973 by dance critic Peter Williams, the charity became Dancers’ Career Development in the 1980s to reflect the more rounded service the organisation strove to provide, encompassing independent dancers, and looking at sustainable long-term career development as opposed to one-off financial support.

Today, alongside the still important strand of grant-giving, DCD offers bespoke coaching to address a dancer’s individual emotional and psychological needs, and programmes like the DCD EVOLVE workshops take place in dance hubs around the country, with a nationwide coaching programme helping extend DCD’s reach. As I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve realised how dance nurtures a sense of courage within yourself. There is a steeliness that comes from going out on stage night after night, but oddly, this boldness isn’t always reflected in your psyche. The workshop environment, centred on group communication, gives the dancer the tools to interrogate their fears, to charter the “undiscovered land” DCD supported dancer Eve Mutso talks about in the video below.

What was wonderful about the event I attended – similar evenings are being held in Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham throughout September – was the sense that it is dancers helping to develop dancers. The many creative and intelligent people I spoke with inspired me to look at my future – whatever that is – with a sense of enterprise. Since its inception, DCD has supported over 2,500 dancers going into as diverse a range of careers as medicine, photography, floristry, management and film. The strong focus of networking – a word that has been high-jacked by its corporate affiliations – is integral to dancers developing in new directions. Life in dance, though it brings much joy to dancer and audience, can be paradoxically solitary. A dancer gives themselves so whole heartedly to their career that once they are out of an established group, it’s easy to see how one would feel alone in the wilderness.

This year, DCD have launched a Career Insights Programme, working with partner organisations run by DCD supported dancers to give dancers paid internships within a range of fields. It’s a pertinent move – employers desire relevant experience from prospective employees, but all too often that can only be gained without remuneration. How do you reconcile that with the cost of living? In her 1974 book, Dancing For a Living, Hilary Cartwright talks about the difficulties faced in transitioning from dance: “the onus [lying] entirely with the individual for having something extra to fall back on in times of distress.” It seems a relevant thought for today’s dancers – how many of us can adequately save for our own properties, let alone consider pension provisions?

Whilst DCD’s great strength is its supportive approach, underpinning that is a strong, strategic face, alert to changing times and the changing needs of dancers. The traditional model of a dancer’s career is in flux – many of us have portfolio careers, using social media in innovative ways to inform and export our work. Appropriately reflecting the larger impact “digital” is making to all our lives, DCD is launching an online networking platform together with a re-branded website in the autumn. I loved discovering DCD belongs to the Creative Industries Federation, a national organisation that looks to articulate the case for the creative arts. Dance must have an authoritative voice, especially when feelings of dislocation pervade our response to events at home and abroad. Considering the role of the dancer within society is a key aim of another organisation, the International Organization for the Transition of Professional Dancers (IOTPD), within which DCD plays an important role. DCD’s far-reaching perspective, its accent on reaching out and generating fertile links is truly relevant.

The US-born ballerina Wendy Whelan said: “Dance has… helped me develop a capacity for awareness – to find beauty in so many fleeting moments”. In the film Restless Creature, a tender, provocative and empowering archive of her own transition from classical ballet, Whelan talks about reconciling her teenage dreams with her 46-year-old self. It is heart-breaking, but compelling, and certainly resonates. DCD is the organisation to help us all apply that “capacity for awareness” to new areas of our individual worlds.

DCD EVOLVE workshop. Photograph by DCD supported dancer Nicole Guarino.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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