There is no easy way to leave your life as “a dancer.” Whether you ascribe to the once a dancer always a dancer mentality, or run screaming from it, your feelings are valid. I have my own experience of leaving dance, and over the years, I have watched the departure of many others that I care about. We make these transitions at various times in our lives, for deeply personal reasons. Sometimes those reasons are in our control, and sometimes they are not.
I left my identity as a dancer 15 years ago despite the promise I had shown for a long professional career. Here I am sharing with you the things that sustained me and led me to eventually rediscover a love of self, and of dance.
Setting boundaries is vital to honoring your mental health. While it can take some getting used to if you are a people-pleasing perfectionist (like most dancers are), setting and expressing your boundaries not only honors you, it is also helpful to those who love you. When you respect the people you love enough to have a difficult conversation, it honors them as well. Setting boundaries is an act of love.
Like many serious dancers, when I stopped dancing many of my friends were still dancers. They were also climbing the ranks in the company I used to perform with. I immediately set a clear boundary with them. “If you want me to come to a performance because it is important to you, you have to tell me that or I won’t be there.”
It was very hard for me to attend any kind of dance performance for several years after I stopped dancing. I was dealing with my own mental health crisis and mourning the significant loss of my identity as a dancer. I needed my friends to know that my absence in the theater for their shows was not a lack of care for them, but an act of self-care for me. They honored this request, and I didn’t miss Julia’s premier as the swan queen, Patricia’s first sugar plum, or Eva as the siren in Prodigal Son. I cried my eyes out at each of these performances and felt honored that my presence was important enough for them to ask. We had honored each other in our separate sacrifices.
Diversify your identity
Dancer’s wear their identity like a badge of honor. “I’m a dancer.” Many of us started dancing so young that we had little opportunity to see ourselves as anything else – nor would we have wanted to. Psychologists consistently tell me that a rigid sense of identity is one of the most concerning things that they see in dancers. A singular identity means that when it isn’t going well our sense of value is diminished. The most common time dancers experience this is when they sustain an injury. Separated from your ability to dance, your social group, and unable to progress, an injury is an exceptionally hard time if your self-esteem and sense of self-worth are completely tied to dance.
Martha Graham is famous for saying that “a dancer dies twice – once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful.” With all due respect to Martha, a departure from dance is never easy, but if you cultivate a fuller sense of who you are as a person, the transition can also be fulfilling.
Try this exercise from my friend and Minding the Gap advisor, Dr. Brian Goonan:
On the top of a piece of paper write – I am a person who…
In a column on the left side of the page number from 1-10.
Your first line might say “dancer”, but what do the other 9 spaces say? Do you love animals? Reading? Writing? Being a good friend and confidant?
Post the list on your wall, locker, or refrigerator and ask yourself at least once each week what you have done to honor the other 9 things you like to do other than dancing.
Do something you enjoy, even if you aren’t great at it
Like many dancers, I am a perfectionist. The high rates of perfectionism among dancers is well documented in research. In the dance psychology space, we spend a great deal of time wondering aloud if dance creates perfectionists, or if perfectionists are drawn to dance – I think it is a little bit of both. After spending years dedicated to perfecting an impossible-to-be-perfect artform it can be hard to imagine enjoying something where you do not strive for excellence, but it may be the healthiest thing you can do right now.
In my life post-dancer I have been known most as a dance writer. But the day that I left the studio for the last time, I had no idea what I would do next. My mother asked me, as I came out of a fit of tears about my future, “what else do you like to do?” I had kept a journal for years; it was my escape. I muttered, “I guess I like to write.” But I wasn’t great at it. I eventually went to the University of Pittsburgh where they have a celebrated writing program. When I entered my first fiction class, I had never written a short story in my life. In journalism class I had little familiarity of the great journalists and most desirable outlets to be published in. I wasn’t great at it, but I allowed myself to enjoy the process of learning it and that led me to a career.
Even if a new interest does not lead to your future career, it is important to spend time doing things you enjoy. Not everything you love should become your job. I love to draw with my six-year-old daughter. Even she can see (and readily points out) my mistakes and lacking skill. But it makes me happy, so I do it as much as possible.
Connect (or re-connect) with non-dancing friends
I am fortunate to have left dance with a cadre of childhood friends who knew me long before I was a “dancer.” These are the friends that I learned to ride a bike with, helped me sort through the emotions of my first crush, and occupied my family’s sleeper-sofa at sleepovers. To them the fact that I danced was just part of who I was, as simple as my hair being brown, or that I would never pick “dare” in truth or dare. If you are lucky enough to have such people in your life, seek them out. And even if your time away focused on your dancing feels as though it has made you distant, you may be surprised how happy they are to hear from you. If apologies are needed, make them.
In my first years of college, I avoided telling anyone of my past as a dancer as much as I could; I didn’t want to talk about it. Despite this omission of what I had once seen as the highest measure of my value, people liked me. I made great friends. Once I began sharing my history as a dancer, my friends found it intriguing and impressive. They didn’t judge me for moving on. It was a fun quirk to who I was that they loved to ask me more about. The friends I made after leaving dance didn’t love me because I had been a talented dancer, they saw all the aspects of who I was outside of dance, even when I couldn’t.
No part of this blog is medical advice. Times of transition can be especially challenging. You deserve support as you navigate your new normal. You can find resources here.
Kathleen McGuire Gaines is a former ballet dancer and the founder of Minding the Gap – a social good company that seeks to see mental health regarded with the same seriousness as physical health. She is also a contributing writer to Dance Magazine, and frequent contributor to Pointe, Dance Teacher, and Dance Spirit.