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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Length of careers in physical pursuits


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Watching the Olympics I got to thinking, dangerous as that can be... Why is a ballet dancer so limited by age when other athletes seem to do it well into their 20's and 30's and more? There are also many late starters who didn't begin training until college. We're still watching these athletes compete yet the dancers are forced into early retirement. Go figure? :P

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Compare it to gymnastics: those two pursuits are similar in how punishing they are to the human body. The physical growth stage (when the body is at its most flexible, pliable) of dancers and gymnasts peaks young.


Not so for many other physical activities. Marathon running is notoriously a later aged sport. Tennis isn't though. Tennis players peak fairly young. Their professional career ages seem to mirror ballet's. I know a tennis player, a US Open winner three years in a row, who retired at the age of 34 and turned his attention to golf, an older person's sport. That's common among some athletes. They switch careers from one sport - with a shorter duration - to another one less punishing to their bodies in their late 20's or 30's.


Actually I think there are lots and lots of Olympic sports where both athletic ability and peak body health occur fairly young.

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What all these early-peaking sports and arts have in common is early and demanding training. I could be wrong, but I don't think kids take up hurdling, say, at six years old and train every day for several hours by the time they are 15. Even the soccer, basketball, and football players do not train constantly at young ages the way gymnasts and dancers and tennis players do. Just an idea.

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Dancers seem to have longer careers these days, though. Out of the (very few) professional dancers that I know, four men and one woman are in their 30s - one of the men is close to 40. I know of two others who just retired in their mid-30s. My understanding is that one reason that it's harder for new dancers to find jobs these days is that dancers' careers, in general, are longer now than they were in the past.

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I think the main reason so many ballet dancers stop dancing in their late 20's has much more to do with money than with their bodies. If they've not moved out of corps, or have been laboring in small companies with sketchy payroll, and they're always scrounging for money, then they might just be ready to start shifting away from ballet as a career.

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One thing that nobody has mentioned is how many former dancers (and some current dancers) we know who smoke cigarettes. For the longesst time, I thought all dancers smoked. I now realize that is not true. I suspect this would shorten anyone's career. I doubt this is very prevelant in the elite sports groups. However, they probably have their share of abuses.


I realize that the view toward balance, wellness and cross-training in the ballet world is changing. It has changed just in this decade that my dd has been dancing.


I don't mean to be negative here. It's just that on the smaller school, local level smoking is extremely common among the teaching adults. However, the kids don't smoke. Making the move to a bigger school has moved dd into a generally healthier environment with a view toward the WHOLE dancer.




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Mini Cooper, I remember how shocked I was when I first realized that so many dancers smoke. My daughter was very young then and I wasn't sure I wanted her to continue in ballet because she'd be around them so much.


If dance students are around European dancers and teachers, they'll see lots more smoking. As yet, the European culture has not weaned away from smoking as much as the American culture (although Ireland banned smoking in the pubs this year - something I can't even imagine for their culture). I think the same is true with South Americans but I'm not sure. Schools that employ former professional ballet dancers from around the world are going to see higher numbers of smokers among their staff.


Based solely from my own experience, I'd have said that the larger schools have relatively MORE teachers (and older students) who smoke. If the school is attached to a company, that's even MORE smokers the students come into contact with.


What I have noticed at these schools is how careful the teachers are about not smoking in front of the students. If they have to take a break for a cigarette, they find some out of the way place to do so. They do not smoke in front of the young students if they can possibly prevent it.


It IS changing gradually in the ballet world but I'm not sure it's ever going to match the culture at large.

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I know fewer and fewer dancers who smoke (thankfully), but there are other issues that affect longevity of career:


1. Injuries (factors including: overuse (corps & soloists in major companies perform often several ballets after a long day of rehearsals...our European counterparts think we're nuts, but when I was performing, if you even hinted that there was a chance I could go on, even last minute, I was there, ready & waiting!, performing conditions, nutritional issues, etc.)


2. Economics. My description of this, with the above reason is:


All the injuries of an NFL football player on the salary of a nun


3. The world 'outside' begins to beckon. Unless the dancer continues to be artistically/intellectually stimulated...


4. Developmental changes. Relationships, how one sees one's place in the world, etc. Some love the nomadic life, others don't. So much depends on each dancer and each company.

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I think the main reason so many ballet dancers stop dancing in their late 20's has much more to do with money than with their bodies. If they've not moved out of corps, or have been laboring in small companies with sketchy payroll, and they're always scrounging for money, then they might just be ready to start shifting away from ballet as a career.

vagansmon, I agree. Many of the sports seen in the Olympics allow training as part of a college education. These athletes have had their training and education paid for, and may feel more secure in prolonging their sports careers. The mid-twenties ballet dancer has probably sacrificed his/her formal education.

My husband’s nephew is a swimmer - attending college on full scholarship. He says MOST of the Olympic-level athletes and many non-Olympic-level athletes have jobs lined-up with companies owned by alumni. Although the NCAA has tightened the rules – there is still a lot alumni-boosters can do to help the athlete.

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Your insight is very helpful. The injury/salary trade off is very true. There are a variety of interesting careers that can spin off of dance. The developmental changes are so true. Houston Ballet has been what appears to be really kind about allowing women to have babies, and having a place for them when they return (if they want to return) to dance.


I would say that we know less and less dancers who smoke. And yes, Vagansmom, most of the smokers have been very careful about not smoking in front of the kids. However, they can't hide the stains on their teeth. DD began to spot that a few years ago.



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DD has been thinking more about dancing longer term and making plans...very type A child!


She is looking at dancing in college, but majoring in Pharmacy. Do these kinds of students ever even get to dance in the corp?

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Many excellent suggestions as to why people in physical pursuits might retire earlier or later. Let me add these to the mix.


1. When people come along who are more skilled or artistic, it increases the motivation to do something else for a living. Essentially, the number of professional jobs are fixed, but the supply of talent keeps coming. And much of that upcoming talent is very very good.


2. After about age 32 we all start a process of physical degeneration. But the degeneration is not uniform over all physical characteristics. For example, the first physical quality to degenerate is quickness and the last is muscular endurance. Though we all degenerate, continued training slows the degeneration and even then there are huge individual differences in rate of decline.


3. Overall, it seems to me that older dancers gain in expressiveness as they age.


4. I think people go through what I’ll call a mental change at about age 30. People start to think longer term, more about family, they become more responsible, more conservative, all of which leads many to question whatever they are doing. If they are a star, they may be less likely to feel that. Stars tend to want to remain stars, regardless of what they star in.


One aside about smoking. Though clearly a terrible thing to do from a health point of view, most of the effects of smoking don’t surface until one is over about 45 (cancer, heart disease), so I don’t think smoking has much effect on dance careers.

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The most obvious side effect of smoking that I notice in dancers is lack of stamina. This is affected long before age 45, and long before the real dangers kick in. One simply cannot breathe through exertiion if one smokes.


This is just my observation. The overall ill-health associated with smoking would certainly effect one's ability to fight off the natural degeneration process that occurs in the body not to mention the normal colds and flu sorts of things.


I just don't want anyone being mislead into thinking they can smoke and not have it affect their dancing until their 45+.




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By no means am I condoning smoking as it seems clear that if one does smoke, the single best thing that one can do to improve one’s health is to stop smoking. A quick look at disease and death rates for smokers and non smokers is absolutely compelling.


Having said that, the argument had to do with smoking and the quality of one’s dance. I would grant that smokers of all ages have less cardiovascular fitness than non smokers. You never see a marathon runner or bike racer who smokes for example. But ballet requires only a minimal amount of cardiovascular fitness. I don’t know about the ballet world, but I am willing to bet that many Eastern European ballet dancers smoke (I’ve seen that phenomenon in other settings). Of course, the most well known ballet example is Baryshnikov.


So, you can argue that stopping smoking, or never starting, will improve your cardiovascular fitness. But from strictly a ballet perspective, greater cardiovascular fitness might not be so important.


The other issue that we anti-smokers (I include myself in that group) must deal with is the perception that smoking prevents weight gain. By no means am I an expert in this, but it seems to me that many is the teen female smoker who justifies her smoking that way. And weight control is a very big deal in ballet.


I know for me, the most compelling anti-smoking argument involves general health and the notion of being addicted to nicotine. As I said, just a quick glance at the disease and death rate statistics, which I think are published by the National Institutes for Health form the basis of a very compelling argument.

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