13. An Assumed Lie: Dancers Retire and Die

A lot has happened in the dance world since I dropped off again.

On the ballet front (for this post, I’ll only look at this subject today): Wendy Whelan has untied her pointe shoes, retiring as an NCYB artist and will be going barefoot as a freelancer while ABT’s previous princess, Alessandra Ferri, has returned to ballet and contemporary stages after her “retirement” in 2007.

“ I don’t think of dance as my career, so don’t use that word with me. It’s not my career; it’s my life. A career is something that you do as a job. You can be passionate about it, but it’s your job. And dance is not my job. It’s my life. It’s who I am.”

I want to talk about this mostly because it is a strange example of how the media presents these two matured artists and women in their art form of dance. They have retired, respectively, and with Ferri, lived a quieter, nun-esque life as a non-dancer, a civilian of the world.

The assumed lie of the life of a dancer is that of a worker, with retirement terminating the job; however, dance is not just a career, as Ferri said it perfectly, and female dancers of all ages do hold their artistic integrity as a dancer for their entire life.

Whelan, who was trained by Balanchine muses and helped NCYB stay fresh after Balanchine’s death, is rejecting that notion of entire withdrawal right from the start, and declaring herself an artist for life:

“My husband [photographer David Michalek] always says to me you’re an artist first, a dancer second, a ballet dancer third. If you’re not a ballet dancer you’re still a dancer. If you’re not a dancer you’re still an artist. So I like to live by those words.”

The problem that the media seems to have with these two women is that, with the exception of a few writers asking the real questions, they keep asking the same thing and assuming the same lie: female ballerinas die when they retire, metaphorically. (Or maybe literally, does the media really think that older ballerinas wither and die if they aren’t on the stage, like a detached lovebird?)

Cheri Signature Theatre

This is so dangerous for female dancers to handle, especially as they are approaching their career as teenagers with the lie in the back of their heads and spewed out of their mouths, “I’ll retire by the time I’m 30. 40. 50.” The age doesn’t matter. Not in these advancing days, at least.

The matter is that they assume they will stop being a dancer after they are not featured on the stage anymore. Retirement is seen as the ultimate termination of transitions, when in fact it is merely one additional transition amongst many in a female (and male, but I’m focusing on female) dancer’s life.

This can relate to something more personal for me, post-graduate dancers, with their degrees in gilded frames and their loans starting to kick in. “Am I still a dancer?” they ask as they work their non-dance jobs/careers with waves of depression and confusion. I believe that all dancers will always be dancers; the stage does not dictate our lives, retirement does not mean death, and graduation is not the end of the artist.

Dancers of all forms seem to ebb into the death of their artistic souls after they declare retirement, but I advocate for a flow of creativity that can come from retiring, and a possible return!

Assuming the body and mind and spirit can still achieve a safe dancing life, there is nothing stopping a fulfilled dancer from reaching and exploring further. And I’m not talking about teaching/coaching– which Whelan has been doing a grand job at for the past few years. Teaching/coaching is great and wondrous but a means to the end of helping others achieve their dancing life, not your own.

I am expressing the desire for dancers to contiune, explore, transition with dance. Maybe dancers of one form to reach out into other forms after they have felt satisfied enough to leave their norm. Ferri is a gorgeous example of this:

“You think, ‘Oh, I cannot do that anymore,’ or ‘I do not want to do that anymore, so stop.’ But no: There’s a huge world out there that is dance, that we don’t look at when we are in our tutu world. I freed myself of that tradition and of that costume, and I am ready to look around.”

I feel that Whelan’s numerous  performances in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘After the Rain’  became a prime mover in her life towards the contemporary dance she is now going to orbit around. And I love that so much! It is thrilling to see prima ballerina’s dip into the contemporary dance world, even the full-fledged modern dance world with some of the MGDC and Mark Morris members.


That is why I am staying positive for Sylvie Guillem’s “retirement.” And why I am planning my series on her with care, not jumping into to it with my blind sadness over her announcement. I believe that if she is healthy and able, she shall join the ranks of Ferri and Whelan, and many other dancers. Guillem does not have to stay dead to dance after she has danced her last dance in Japan next year; she has options, not assumptions.

More of Ferri:





More on Whelan:






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