Leaving the ballet world in the midst of a pandemic
Why I left my dream job as a ballet dancer to pursue a career change
Our ballet company had just returned from an international tour to Havana, Cuba. A country where the arts are held in the highest social and political regard, seeing how something as codified as ballet could transcend linguistic and cultural barriers to put on a performance with Cuban dancers was an experience I will never forget. During the tour we heard snippets and rumors of COVID-19, but we were too focused on our upcoming shows to give it serious thought. Two weeks later we had a company meeting and found out we were shutting down from a government mandated lockdown; and just like that, we were out of work. I remember the shock and the confusion that rippled throughout me and my coworkers as we sat in a circle of socially distanced chairs. In the span of two weeks, we went from performing Romeo and Juliet at the National Theater in Havana to frantically trying to navigate the online labyrinth that was the state unemployment website. Being out of work also meant that there was ample time to think, reflect, and process the shock of what had just happened. For a career as unique as ballet, one dependent upon a daily release of endorphins and a shocking level of physical intimacy with your peers, suddenly losing the space and capacity to practice it everyday felt like a blow to my identity and sense of self.
It’s no secret that COVID-19 decimated the arts industries across the US. It’s also no secret that the arts were already undervalued and underappreciated within today’s society. Just as the disease held a mirror to the glaring socioeconomic and racial inequalities within America, it left working artists to fend for themselves with no aid or resources. While attempting to “stay in shape” by practicing ballet on the coarse carpet floor of my bedroom (with many stubbed toes from accidentally kicking my dresser), I watched as the best ballet dancers in the nation from American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet were furloughed. I watched as the NBA created a sealed campus at Disney World in Florida to continue their basketball season with the financial means to test everyone weekly within the facility. I watched as my freelance dance friends in Berlin quickly received government aid and benefits. Being a professional ballet dancer was already so unstable, and all of a sudden it became so much more uncertain. It was clear that the priorities of present-day society were far removed from helping workers in the arts. It was depressing, demoralizing, discouraging, and frustrating. How were dancers and other artists within America supposed to recover from this?
In retrospect, it was at this point I knew it was time for a change, but I hadn’t really allowed myself to believe it. I had given up so much to pursue ballet, and it had been my dream since I started ballet at 20 to become a professional dancer within a ballet company.
Fortunately, our company was quite small and thus afforded more flexibility in how we functioned. Much bigger ballet companies that were affiliated with theaters and opera houses were unable to return to work. After about 3–4 months, we returned back to work for the summer season while paying stringent attention to the safety standards from the CDC. Of course, it was a privilege that we were one of the few ballet companies to go back to work and resume rehearsals and performances. But it wasn’t long after resuming that I knew it was time for me to find something else. It took COVID to reveal the unmistakable imbalances within America that were always there, and to reveal to me why I needed to leave the ballet world.
Sure, it felt great to be back in the studio dancing again after 3–4 months of existential dread and physical inactivity. But have you ever tried doing ballet with a mask? Not only is it harder to breathe, but the lung stamina required to get through an entire class takes a while to build. There’s also the pressure of making sure that your mask fully covers your nose and chin, and if it doesn’t quickly adjusting it while furtively and shamefully looking around to see if anyone saw you. By the end of a long, summer day the whole thing is drenched in your own sweat and the backs of your ears are raw and sore from constantly adjusting the straps. But beyond these reasons, for me it was the simple fact that it covered your face. What I love about ballet is the storytelling, the emoting, the connection with people. People come to performances to see the lived stories and experiences that you communicate through your face and your body. You wouldn’t think covering half of your face would make a big difference, but suddenly I was now a faceless robot struggling to breathe through his nostrils, suppressed in his ability to express through his face.
Many of the different venues that we typically performed at for the summer were still shut down. We therefore resorted to virtual performances. There were a lot of benefits to this approach; more accessibility for people to see our performances, and the homefield advantage of filming in our own space. Yet the biggest drawback was losing the actual experience of performing. Few people understand the energy and the magic that happens with a live performance: the spontaneous, ephemeral nature of it. You can never predict what will happen in a live performance and that risk, that uncertainty is what makes it all the more fulfilling when it goes well. There is a certain reciprocity between performers and an audience that can be felt instantly when the curtains come up. All this disappears with a virtual performance. The only live audience member you’re left with is a camera’s soulless, sterile lens staring back at you with nothing implying life or humanity; just a single red light. You exude all this energy and emotion out to tell a story and yes, people may be watching virtually but you lose the energetic feedback and response of an audience. The closest metaphor that comes to mind is participating in a heated debate while giving an impassioned speech, but the other side remains completely mute.
Masks and virtual performances were not ideal, but they were not dealbreakers. What solidified my decision to leave the ballet world was an issue that existed pre-COVID: the work environment of a ballet company.
First of all, I’d like to put a disclaimer that this was my own personal experience and I’m not at all speaking for every ballet dancer’s experience. If your experience differs greatly from mine and you strongly disagree with what I say, then all the better for you.
It’s becoming more apparent that work environments within ballet companies can perpetuate pretty toxic behaviors, and my experience was largely the same. Rampant miscommunication and a very top-down hierarchical structure creates a space rife with politics and frustrations. If you consider how young children are when they start ballet, the line between “discipline” and “oppression” can easily be blurred. Classical ballet perpetuates a culture where dancers are taught to silence themselves, and to simply move their bodies as directed by the authority figure in the front of the room. As a male dancer, we are afforded a large amount of privilege because there are just a lot fewer of us in the ballet world. The competition is much fiercer for women in ballet, and the pressures and expectations for them are much more stringent.
I saw my female co workers be repressed and shamed for their bodies. I saw them be devalued and criticized for things that were out of their control. I saw people around me justifying this by saying, “Oh, but it’s so much worse in other ballet companies.” So? First of all, what does that say about our industry as a whole when people undermine the severity of repressive actions by pointing out worse-case scenarios? Sure, people in other companies are sexually abused, verbally harassed, have things thrown at them and in our environment I don’t necessarily doubt that the people in positions of leadership never had malintent but I’m sorry, that is nowhere near a legitimate excuse. Furthermore, what does that say about me as a co-worker, a peer, who is benefiting in an environment where my female coworkers are being taken advantage of? It may very well be true that worse situations could transpire in other ballet companies, but if this is really the “best” environment then it’s certainly not an environment that I want to be a part of.
There was also a clear moment when I realized that these behaviors and attitudes were not going to change. Of course there is something to be said about fighting the good fight and sticking it out, in terms of both being an artist in these unprecedented times as well as trying to effect positive change in a workplace environment. But this was a point where I recognized that this was an environment that one dissenting person like myself could not change, and I knew I had to leave this situation.
Just as COVID exposed the ever-present disparities within society, it exposed behaviors and attitudes within my workplace that I could no longer tolerate. I realize now that it was the combination of seeing how undervalued and underappreciated the arts were in receiving governmental aid and the toxicity within my workplace environment that made it indisputably clear for me that it was time to find something else. Ultimately, these two occurrences placed too much of a strain on my own personal relationship with ballet. In the midst of a global pandemic, why would I subject myself to any environment that doesn’t empower and uplift?
This decision didn’t come without its fair share of guilt. I don’t undermine the necessity of the performing arts in helping people connect to themselves and their humanity throughout these trying times, and in a way it feels selfish to have left when the arts needed people to fight for it the most. But I have no regrets on my decision, because I know that I cannot contribute to help those around me if I refuse to help myself first. And there was no way that staying any longer in an environment where we would simply look the other way when our coworkers were being taken advantage of would not take its toll on my mental well-being. Glorification of burn out is common within the ballet world, where it somehow is noble and admirable to work yourself to the limits of your physical and mental capacities. When will our understanding of healthy boundaries and not burning ourselves out within the ballet world catch up to the present day?
Don’t get me wrong; I still love ballet. It still brings me so much inexplicable joy to see pointe shoes, and there is really no other feeling akin to the exhilaration you feel when performing ballet steps and losing yourself to some of the most beautiful music. But unfortunately, ballet’s inherent premise of making physically demanding steps look effortless is darkly exemplified by the toxicity that happens beyond the curtain. Since transitioning careers, I’ve given a lot of thought to the role that I want ballet to occupy within my own life. A friend of mine recently said something to me that I find myself constantly referring back to: “You haven’t left ballet permanently, you just did what you had to do in order to survive and then you’ll return to it on your own terms when you’re ready.”
I still have a lot of unfinished goals and aspirations within the ballet world that I wanted to achieve pre-COVID. I now realize that my relationship with ballet can continue, but I know now that it will have to be on my own terms. I’m still in the process of figuring out exactly what that entails, but it gives me hope and courage to know that leaving an unhealthy work environment doesn’t mean that I have to stop dancing. It is my responsibility to create spaces and to find environments that will ultimately support and empower my relationship with ballet.