Rose Mallare had a lot of energy as a child. Her parents knew she needed some kind of outlet. The community center near their Canton, Michigan, home offered dance classes, so Rose’s mother started her in ballet and tap. She did well. Rose’s teacher told her mother she had talent and needed a more disciplined program. She changed schools and eventually changed cities. In Los Angeles, Mallare was hired to be part of the touring company of the Radio City Rockettes. She worked as a Rockette for four years.
Mallare landed her dream job in 1998, moving to New York to become an original cast member of the Off Broadway show De La Guarda. For eight shows a week she would dance, drum, and fly through the air at the Union Square theater. Mallare and her fellow cast members learned one another’s roles and would regularly trade parts. Improvisation was essential to this experimental show, and the former Rockette loved the break that it gave her from her old routine of expert precision. But in 2003, while on tour with De La Guarda in South Korea, she tore her left meniscus in multiple places. The injury required surgery. She thought her dance career was over.
“It was pretty scary,” she recalls. “When I got the knee injury I thought I should start preparing for the next ten years of my life.”
Mallare’s story dances around the obvious: A professional dance career cannot last a lifetime. Most end in the dancer’s mid-thirties, after she has dedicated her adolescence and young adult life to perfecting her art, spending years training and auditioning, usually at the cost of advanced education, full-time employment, savings, and establishing professional networks outside the field. Retiring from dance at thirty-five presents the question: How will I support myself for the next several decades? The careers dance has traditionally led performers to—teaching and choreography—are not viable options for many dancers today; the number of support and administrative jobs in the dance world cannot accommodate the large number of retiring dancers. For many, the task of moving on in their professional lives means figuring out what exactly they enjoy doing besides dancing.
The anxiety brought on by Mallare’s approaching knee surgery prompted her to contact Career Transition For Dancers. Based in offices on the seventh floor of the Actor’s Equity building in Times Square, Career Transition For Dancers (CTFD) is the nation’s only career counseling agency serving professional dancers. It’s a place all dancers in New York have heard of, even if they’ve never visited. Founded in New York City in 1985, CTFD has grown into a national organization with offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, and on June 8, exactly thirty-one years after the group’s mission was identified at a conference at Lincoln Center, the organization will be awarded a 2013 Tony Award for Excellence in Theater.
“I honestly don’t remember exactly how I first heard about Career Transition For Dancers,” says Mallare, “but I’d heard so much about them in the dance community and decided to follow up.” She found the CTFD website and made an appointment for a counseling session with Lauren Gordon, who helped her plot a course of study in theater production and business management at SUNY Empire State. The program was, says Mallare, really perfect for her. But, surprising even herself, Mallare’s leg healed and she went back to dancing before she could finish the degree. She returned to De La Guarda and then, realizing that the show had created a new market for aerial dance, decided to found her own aerial company, Second Species. Again she turned to Gordon of CTFD, who put her in touch with lawyers and service providers to help her get that company started.
Mallare eventually left Second Species and moved to Florida to work in the entertainment department at Busch Gardens—a complicated decision, logistically and emotionally. “Coming from NYC, I thought, ‘I can’t work at an amusement park, I just can’t,’” recalls Mallare. But one year later, she has found a lot to like about the job. Throughout this transition, she has turned to CTFD for advice, listening to their podcasts and speaking regularly with her counselor. Mallare says that having Gordon to count on has been invaluable: “Every time I’m in that spot—crisis moments—she helped create a path that I could walk on.”
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Dancers are everywhere in New York. Take a look around. All those young people you see with perfect posture and slightly turned-out feet—they’re probably dancers. Even if you haven’t seen one in performance, you’ve probably met one working at a bar or teaching yoga at your gym. Dancers don’t just come here when they get jobs, like Mallare did. Many of them come here looking for work. There are more dance companies and dance presenters in New York than in any other city in the world. Still, the competition is fierce. Becoming a professional dancer—and the definition of “professional” varies within the field—means beating out hundreds or thousands of other hopefuls for gigs, contracts, and appearances. In the early stages of a career, it also means taking a lot of “survival” jobs—waitressing, nannying, retail, teaching yoga—that are flexible enough to allow for a daily technique class and to sneak in rehearsals and performances. In some way this can feel like an extension of childhood, which many dancers spend managing schedules to maximize the time available for dance. All that focus at a young age means dancers often forgo developing outside interests. Dance becomes a total way of life.
For Kayla Schwartz, a former modern and musical theater dancer, coming to terms with the end of her dancing career was nearly unthinkable. “I was married to dancing,” Schwartz says. “When I thought about stopping, I just didn’t feel ready. I told myself, you can take class four days a week instead of six.”
Lauren Gordon, the soft-spoken counselor at CTFD, says she sees reluctance like Schwartz’s all the time. “To be a working dancer in New York is certainly to be among the successful dancers in this country,” says Gordon. “Sometimes we have to spend several sessions on the psychological and emotional side of change.” She keeps a Kleenex box in her office, which overlooks the TKTS booth in Times Square. CTFD maintains a strict confidentiality policy and would not allow Narratively access to any of the one-on-one or group counseling programs, but Gordon would say that the end of a dancer’s career, whether real or perceived, always involves grief. “Everybody goes through some form of loss. We’re here for them for that.”
At the heart of CTFD are its counseling services. According to the organization’s most recent 990 filing, in fiscal year 2011 the organization provided 1,434 hours of one-on-one counseling to 740 clients. All dancers are eligible for counseling at any time of their lives, and CTFD encourages dancers to come in as early as possible. “There’s a fragility to a dancer’s career even at peak health,” says Gordon. “Having ongoing, free confidential access to one-to-one sessions for one’s lifespan and career is huge. I don’t know any other organization that provides that.”
A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with experience working in AIDS and mental health activism as well as with performers and athletes, Gordon came to CTFD in 2002. It’s part of her job to help dancers see the work ethic they learned in dance as a strength and to understand that the skills they do have are transferable to other fields. “I think it’s already in their DNA to be disciplined, multi-tasking team players and be fast learners,” says Gordon. She says it’s important to see the dancer as a “whole person.” “Not only what you did as a dancer, but who you are as a person, what your interests are, what your strengths are, what your skills are, what your dreams are. And how that helps you continue to be the best dancer you can at this point and explore what else you want to do either now or going forward.”
Gordon knows the transition period can take years and usually proceeds in a non-linear fashion. That was the case with most of the dancers interviewed for this story. Schwartz first approached CTFD years before she stopped dancing and has continued to meet with counselors there as her post-dance career has progressed. After a counselor gave her a Myers-Briggs personality test to help define her interests outside dance, “one of the things that did come up was going to social work school,” says Schwartz. She applied to Hunter College. She didn’t get in and decided to take a non-matriculated course and then reapply.
“The funny thing was what I learned was so helpful, but I wasn’t ready to utilize it,” says Schwartz.
Schwartz stopped dancing in her early thirties. She says she “fell backwards” into a job as a presentation and communications coach. When she stopped taking dance class every day, she started working at a restaurant. A contact at the restaurant introduced her to the field of presentation coaching. Schwartz pursued this career for years, but wasn’t fully committed to it and went back to CTFD to speak with Gordon. Now, at age fifty, she is pursuing a degree in social work at Fordham University and will start an internship in the fall. “I’m really kind of scared about it,” says Schwartz. “I’ve never had a nine-to-five job. I’ve always worked hard…I can’t even tell you how many auditions I used to go to.” But working as a dancer is different and she has anxiety about the transition to full-time non-dance work. When she started at Fordham, she met with Gordon every week. “The first semester I really needed help figuring out how to manage, how to go back to school,” says Schwartz. “It’s been thirty years. I feel like I’ve gone through a pretty steep learning curve.”
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Ann Barry, the founding director and former president of CTFD, currently works as the organization’s grants administrator. A veteran dancer for Broadway, television, and film, Barry was in one of the first graduating classes at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, the school that would be the setting for the movie Fame, and appeared in the original film version of The Producers. Her performing career lasted seventeen years. “Then the light dawned that I could not do this forever.” She transitioned to stage and production management and then associate producing before founding CTFD.
“We viewed it as an empowerment program.” She says the topic of career transition initially wasn’t talked about. “At first people were reluctant to even mention they were coming here, that they would be thinking of transitioning,” says Barry. Dancers didn’t want anyone to know that they were considering ending their careers because that could cause problems with their employers. “Because in companies if the A.D. [artistic director] wasn’t simpatico, all of a sudden [the dancers] weren’t in the new ballets, they weren’t given feature roles,” says Barry. Since then, she has seen an attitude shift that she says has been very rewarding.
The idea behind CTFD was born of a one-day conference of the same name that took place at Lincoln Center on June 8, 1982, and was arranged by the AFL-CIO Labor Institute for Human Enrichment, a nonprofit research division of the Department for Professional Employees, with assistance provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Actors’ Equity, the performers’ union. The dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille served as honorary chair.
The aim of the conference was to examine the “underside” of a dancer’s life. In the early 1980s, that underside wasn’t apparent to audiences. New York City was experiencing a dance boom. Mikhail Baryshnikov had defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, setting off a media frenzy. He came to New York shortly thereafter to perform with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. By this time, both were considered among the nation’s leading cultural organizations and for the City Ballet in particular, it was time to reap the rewards for decades of hard work devoted to building a ballet audience in the United States. Popular culture had picked up the cause and run with it. The “dance look”—leg warmers, cut-up sweatshirts, ponytails—was in.
The conference’s organizers sought to recognize the “trauma” dancers face at the end of their performing careers and to begin to consider ways and means of assisting them. At the time, Barry was on the board of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which was represented at the conference along with the other performing unions AEA, AGMA, and SAG. “The unions felt very strongly that there was a responsibility that they had to their members who were dancers to help them at that time in their lives,” says Barry. “Dancers who had had professional careers and had paid into the performing unions.”
Dancing is in some respects the most glamorous blue-collar job in America. The conference identified a few of the mechanisms of that paradox: Lack of academic support for dancers, both as subjects of study and as students themselves; downward social mobility (most dancers will earn less than their parents); and a regressive professional culture. Richard LeBlond, a former professor of sociology and the then president of the San Francisco Ballet, hit on this last point in the conference report:
Perhaps dancers live in a world in which they’re not allowed to reach emotional maturity and that really comes out in the language itself. What other profession calls adult artists “kids”? What other profession refers to people who have been practitioners of their art and are in their thirties as “boys” and “girls”?
The conference concluded that funds needed to be allocated towards work on the problem of career transition. The conferees discussed and were impressed by a British program, the Dancers Resettlement Fund, which had accomplished similar goals, but the details of how such a program could be developed in the United States remained unclear. According to Barry, “Everyone recognized there was a need for some kind of support for dancers to train in education or to another type of career. Everybody went away and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea.’”
Barry says that not much was done with the idea until Edward Weston, who had served as director of the Lincoln Center conference and was working with Actors’ Equity, convinced the unions to contribute funds to get the project off the ground. He also convinced the Actors’ Fund of America, a nonprofit serving American entertainment professionals, to manage the money. Career Transition For Dancers thereby became a pilot program operating under the umbrella of the Actors’ Fund.
“As time went by it was my sense that the money that the unions had contributed was not serving the dancers well enough,” says Barry, who was on the CTFD advisory board. So Barry helped shepherd CTFD out of the Actors’ Fund and incorporated it as its own tax-exempt organization.
Barry still keeps a pamphlet from the 1982 Lincoln Center conference in her desk. The organization has grown in scope and scale since then, opening a Los Angeles office in 1995 and one in Chicago in 2008. CTFD currently serves dancers throughout the country via its outreach program.
Alex Dubé, the current executive director of CTFD, was one of the people at the center of the movement from the beginning. Dance has always been Dubé’s passion. His childhood inspiration was the quintessential American dancer Fred Astaire. Growing up in Massachusetts, the young Dubé stuck gum and glue to the bottom of his shoes in an attempt to dance on the walls and ceiling of his bedroom, a trick Astaire pulled off in the 1951 MGM film Royal Wedding. “And I kept falling. I lived in a two story house and my mother finally said, ‘What the hell are you doing upstairs?’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m trying to dance on the walls and on the ceiling.’”
Dubé moved to New York to study at the Joffrey Ballet School. Although he loved dancing, especially rehearsing and partnering, he eschewed a performance career. Instead he went into management, working first for legendary impresario Sol Hurok, then forming his own company, Dubé Zakin Management. “There was a huge need for superstar guest artists,” people like Baryshnikov and his frequent partner Gelsey Kirkland, “and this became very lucrative,” says Zakin. He went on to work as the dance division’s director at AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, before joining the board of Career Transition For Dancers.
Under Dubé’s leadership, one focus of the organization has been reaching dancers at a younger age. “We have decided that we need to reach out to students and pre-professionals and apprentices,” says Dubé. “We need to reach out to the dancers earlier, number one, to let them know we exist, and two, to plant the seed of the inevitability of transition in an attempt to avoid crisis later in one’s career.”
Barry and Dubé are also quick to point out that the working philosophy of CTFD brings dance in line with the mainstream labor market. Dubé says that the average worker now transitions up to six times in the course of her life. “Understand the world of work has changed,” adds Barry. “People go from various jobs, careers, one to another. And it’s not a sign of weakness or incompetence; it’s just the way the world works. Now you move on, and dancers know that they have to do that, too. And they are prepared for it now.”
That dance is a job like any other is something most dance students never consider. Pre-professional dance training programs usually prevent students from participating in after-school activities such as sports teams, school clubs, family vacations, and part-time jobs. It’s something dance students are proud of. Sweatshirts printed with the phrase “I can’t, I have rehearsal” are popular with dance clothing retailers. A program that plants “the seed of the inevitability of transition” recognizes that the dancer will have to rely on other skills, non-dancing skills, over the course of her working life. This means developing outside interests, and that runs counter to most dance teaching philosophies. To consider the dancer holistically from the beginning of her career, as Lauren Gordon suggests, is a radically different way of approaching dance training.
CTFD seeks to treat dancers as extraordinary individuals who must be taught to live normal lives. “Our mission is a special mission,” says Dubé. “We’re not sexy. CTFD is not a sexy organization. We are a service organization.”
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As a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group for twenty-one years, Joe Bowie was one of the most recognized dance performers in the world. Now he keeps a decidedly lower profile, working as a baker on the pastry team at Dean & DeLuca. “I baked a lot already,” says Bowie. Although he enjoyed it, he didn’t know if baking would be a good fit as a career.
In 2010, Bowie was one of over a hundred dancers awarded a $2,000 Caroline H. Newhouse Scholarship by CTFD, which administers two scholarships funds, “to initiate an academic or retraining process or to help professional dancers with start-up money for a new business.”
“It was wonderful to have the grant. I took a five-day course in artisanal bread baking to see if I liked that [professional] aspect of it.” It turns out he did like it. He went from there into a professional program at the International Culinary Institute, and since then has worked for Chef Daniel Boulud and taught public baking courses at Le Pain Quotidien. He now works as a baker full-time. Like dance, the work is creative and physical. But Bowie says there is one thing about being a baker that is very different from his life as a dancer: “Unless I get ratted out, I’m completely anonymous.” Occasionally, he is noticed, as when one of his bosses texted to ask if she was right to think she had seen Bowie in a movie featuring cellist Yo Yo Ma. She was.
To be approved for one of the Newhouse grants that Bowie received, a dancer must be able to show a seven-year performance career, a hundred weeks or more of paid dance employment in the United States, and total gross earnings of a minimum of $56,000. These eligibility requirements were set by the CTFD board at the organization’s founding and are regularly reviewed. Since 1985, CTFD has dropped an age requirement from this list.
Dancers can also attend the career and skill-building symposia CTFD offers or watch online. Many CTFD alumni volunteer their time to help with these events. Mark Hall, a long-time Broadway performer and physical therapist, spoke at a recent CTFD Career Conversation forum about careers in dance medicine. Hall was a Caroline H. Newhouse Scholarship recipient. Now, as the owner of Encore Physical Therapy, he sees a lot of Broadway dancers. “One of the only secure performing jobs there are now is a long-running Broadway show,” says Hall. He thinks the consistency of Broadway gives dancers the chance to find time to explore their academic or other interests. He tells his clients and the dancers he meets through CTFD that “the idea of planning ahead is a good thing. It’s about being preemptive and having the opportunity to take advantage of the situation you’re in.”
Dancers will always be in New York and they’ll always be hard workers. Using the community as a network is one of CTFD’s strategies; the organization counts on dancers to help spread the word and this seems to be working.
Teresa Reichlen is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. She joined the company as a teenager, during her junior year of high school. Since graduating from high school, she has enrolled at Barnard. “Honestly, I didn’t really want to do it; my parents encouraged me to do it. Just because you never know how long your career is going to be or how happy you’ll be as a dancer,” says Reichlen. “Also, it was a good outlet for me to keep grounded. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in company life. I appreciated it a few years later.”
And yet, Reichlen’s course load depends on her performing schedule. “I try not to allow it to interfere with work. That’s part of what’s hard about it—finding classes that are in our off time. I have to go early in the morning or on Mondays on our day off and not let it conflict with work.”
A biology major at the top of her dancing career, Reichlin is currently halfway through her junior year, but has no plans for her post-performance professional life. When asked what kind of end-of-career counseling advice the New York City Ballet offers, Reichlen, who is not a CTFD client, says it offers none. Then she adds, “But there’s this organization called Career Transition For Dancers.”