BOSTON — MARGOT FONTEYN danced into her sixties. Mikhail Baryshnikov still makes the arduous seem effortless at 44. But for most ballet dancers their final bow comes around age 30, just as their peers in other professions are beginning to make their mark.
Often with only a high-school education, little savings, and a tiny pension fund, many dancers are suddenly pushed out the door through injury or unrenewed contracts, and left unprepared for a second career.
"In the same way that a corporation provides for retirement of employees, so should a ballet company - maybe not financially but certainly emotionally," contends Ellen Wallach, a Seattle-based career counselor and an advocate of educating dancers early for the next step.
Support for career transition, however, is not embraced with much enthusiasm by the dance community, despite an initial flurry of interest. In 1988, long-dormant concerns were raised by Wallach's ground-breaking survey "Life After Performing," which provided the first formal look at the challenges dancers face when they stop performing.
Independent counseling services and special funds within ballet companies were set up to ease this rite of passage for dancers; unions wrote severance pay clauses into new contracts; and ballet companies changed rehearsal hours to enable dancers to attend college courses and pursue other interests.
But the interest has not been sustained. Few ballet companies today have a comprehensive transition program for their dancers. Counseling services are struggling to stay afloat. Arts funding is down and corporate sponsors are begging off as needs like AIDS and homelessness draw on resources. And dancer interest seems as short as the money.
"Intellectually they must know [their careers will end], but emotionally they are denying it," says Wallach, explaining why many dancers put off preparing for a second career until the move is upon them.
This denial by dancers and companies alike makes ballet almost an anachronism in the professional world.
Salaries are still notoriously low - around $20,000 a year for corps dancers. "State garbage men get more," Devon Carney, Boston Ballet's principal dancer, wryly points out. And the pension is "enough to pay for coffee each day in the year 2020," he adds.
College education and even high school diplomas are sometimes sacrificed because stiff competition among female dancers demands that many commit to a ballet career as young as age 12. "If they don't completely surround themselves with dance at a young age, they don't stand a chance," says David Porter, a corps dancer with Boston ballet.
This cloistered existence, where the company becomes like family, encourages dancers to think about tomorrow's rehearsal and not the future.
Gradually, however, a sea change is taking place in the thinking of dancers and dance companies, some members of the ballet community say.
"It is not a matter of [introducing new] programming per se, it's a matter of changing the attitude of the dance world. That's happening slowly, but happening," says Wallach, who adds that growing work opportunities for women have added impetus.
Paula Prewett, principal of Pacific Northwest Ballet School, concurs. Since the founding four years ago of Beyond Dance, a counseling service that regularly offers seminars on second careers to ballet students and dancers, continuing education has become a given at the company.
Progress has been slow, she admits. "We had to constantly validate the existence [of Beyond Dance] and ask, `Are we trying to crack a nut that doesn't really want to be cracked?' "
But there are some encouraging signs. More dancers are coming in at a younger age to inquire about the next step and going back to school, says Elizabeth Campbell at Career Transition for Dancers, a counseling and referral service in New York largely funded by the four performing-arts unions. Already a dozen or so dancers from the New York City Ballet are enrolled in Fordham University, which has worked to accommodate their schedules.
Mr. Carney, his own career at a peak, felt it critical that dancers recognize the brevity of their careers, and established the Dancers' Resource Fund to provide financial assistance to dancers for academic or vocational training programs. The four-year-old fund, now at $40,000, is topped up annually with part of the proceeds from a performance of "Nutcracker." The fund will help former corps dancer Kelly Contant train to be a chef come fall.
Dancers at the company can also gain experience in other areas of the dance field through the summer internship program at Boston Ballet. Three weeks long, "The Dance Perspective" puts them to work in different administrative departments of the company, where they write weekly reports and discuss company issues with directors.