Why I quit my job as a professional ballet dancer

This might be the most personal blog post that I write to date, but it’s something that’s a long time coming (apologies for being away from the blog for so long!). I’ve been avoiding writing this post because it feels like a behemoth of a post, I’m a bit out of writing shape, and I don’t want to release something half-ass-edly. For those of you that know me, I didn’t want to simply tell you all that I had quit and force you to guess why (and receive all sorts of crazy comments); I wanted to share my decision along with the detailed reasoning behind it. This decision was not an easy one to make.

So… I’ve decided to quit being “a professional ballet dancer.”

For at least this year, I will not perform in any shows with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo or any other well-established professional company. Call it a gap year.

Why would I ever step away from the lifestyle that has given me beautiful moments, increased my status in society, and led me through my adult life to the place where I am now? This is a question that I too, have been asking myself. It turns out to be a rather hard question to answer.

Depending on my mood and the situation, when asked, I have a variety of answers: I didn’t feel like I had enough time for myself, I wanted to help others in a tangible way, I had interests outside of dance that I wanted to explore… the list goes on. But the truth is, no single one of these reasons was enough to lead me away from the world that built me up and molded me into the person I am. It was the cumulative effect of many different factors.

In the following section I’ll explore in some detail the numerous factors in my life that led me to this decision. By many calculations, my choice was questionable: I was in a company filled with marvelous talent, I had respect from the people around me, I was getting to tour the world… There were many positive parts of my life as a dancer, especially with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. But it wasn’t everything for me. Hopefully the following reasons will help you understand why.

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Number 1: My identity was no longer attached to being a ballet dancer.

Many ballet dancers will tell you the story that they knew from day one that they wanted to be a professional ballerina. That wasn’t me. I liked my classes, and I enjoyed learning and improving, but as a child my view of the future was pretty much limited to the following day. I wasn’t focused on my future as an adult.

Once I reached adolescence and I started to assume the identity of “ballet dancer,” this changed a bit, and, naturally, I said to myself that “ballet dancer” was who I was. Reinforced by others in and out of the ballet world, in both positive and negative ways, I was, without a doubt, a “ballet dancer.” I excelled in class, wanted to do well to please my teachers, and I saw a clear path of what I might be able to do with my life. Other teenagers would only be so lucky to have a career path already laid out in front of them, people told me. Of course if I made it I was going to be a professional dancer!

This is an attitude that, to my knowledge, pervades all of the serious ballet schools of the country and in the world. This is only natural for schools that are sculpting world-class dancers. In my class, I didn’t know anyone who was spending more than 10 hours a week on top of regular school and saying “No, I’m just doing this for fun. When I graduate, I’m done with dance.” We sacrificed, without really knowing it, too much to turn away at that point. And that label of “ballet dancer” became a part of us.

This becomes especially relevant at the end of your dance education, when the prospect of achieving your dreams is so close. What are you, if not the thing that you poured your sweat and tears into, almost every day of every week for as long as you can remember? If you’re offered a contract, you take it.

So, guided by my environment, encouraged by my friends, and label in hand, I joined Oregon Ballet Theatre.

There were alternatives to joining OBT. I applied for several universities that specialized in marine biology, so that I would have the option when the time came. It was a good idea, as my counselors and parents reminded me. But while applying and “deciding” what I was going to do, there was no question in my mind. As long as I didn’t seriously injure myself, and I was offered a contract, I was going for it.

I was a “ballet dancer,” after all.

But at this point in my l life, I can’t help feeling that that choice and my life path were very strongly the results of the environment that had shaped me, the way a vine grows according to its trellis and the gardener’s will. img_3370Nominally, I absolutely made the choice to become a professional dancer. But it’s hard for me to say that I could have done anything otherwise. I knew only my immediate environment, and there was a very strong, very real force pushing me to become a ballet dancer.

At this point though, I’ve decided to sidestep that force a bit, maybe to get a better handle on what it means to be a ballet dancer. While I still consider myself a dancer, it is no longer the driving force of my identity. And perhaps because of this, I no longer feel the need to follow the standard pre-approved path of a dancer.

This Lucas vine has veered off of its original trellis, and I no longer see myself as having to fit in to the neatly-described job of “ballet dancer.” I want to break out of these boundaries, and experience a different frame of life.

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This is Sardinia, if you’re wondering.

Number 2: I have other interests, and time is a precious commodity.

Ballet isn’t exactly a part-time activity. In the ballet world, it’s all or nothing. This is great if you’re 100% focused on ballet, also known as being a bun-head, but when you have other competing interests it can be quite frustrating. I’m somewhat of an oddball in the dance world, so when the newest edition of Scientific American came out I’d be disappointed that I couldn’t find anyone in my circle of friends interested in discussing the new theories I had just read about spacetime.

The past few years, it felt like there was too little space (or time) in my routine to truly dive into things the way I’ve wanted to. Take this blog for example: I’m happy that I started it, and I’ve enjoyed the process of creating something from scratch, but with my limited free time last year, it started to feel like a chore. In the end, having to choose between spending Sunday with my girlfriend and spending it writing a new blog post was a contest that the blog post would never win.

There were other things that required not only time, but mental energy, and that was the most important resource that I lacked. All of my energies were directed towards keeping my head above water, (recovering from the day at hand, preparing for the next,) so much so that I was unable to branch out and explore the many different life experiences that were out there calling me. To have these experiences, I realized, was only possible if I truly stepped away from the full-time professional dance world.

The dance world lives on year-to-year contracts. So if I was going to take a break from dancing, it was going to be for at least a year.

We are lucky, as professional dancers, to have contracts that keep us employed and salaried year-round. But this convenience comes at a price: we lose a certain freedom. What once felt inspirational and exciting can start to feel like a nine-to-five job, and something you once did to express yourself can become boringly mechanical.

In addition, dancers have virtually no say in when they receive time off. This means that if you’re feeling stressed out or run down, too bad. You suck it up and you keep on working until the next vacation comes around.

But sometimes you need time off. I believe downtime is important, not only mentally but physiologically. In the past I would have said mind-over-matter is all you need, but I’ve become much more convinced that real recovery time is necessary for a healthy balance in our lives, in the same way that we need good sleep to function well during the day.

I wanted to live a healthy, balanced life. Here are some of my interests that I wanted to dig down into:

  • Tai Chi on a regular basis
  • Hikes
  • Programming
  • Botany
  • Cooking
  • Occasional fasting
  • Meditation retreat
  • A different approach to working (on dance) in the studio
  • Writing (particularly this blog)

Yes, there is a lot here, and clearly I’m not doing all these things all the time. But now I have the space to choose when and how deeply I want to get into these things.

img_3839When I was dancing full-time, I felt too limited in what I could pursue – I felt like a prisoner of circumstance and of the expectation of single-minded devotion to ballet that I lacked. There was too much calling me to experience a world outside of ballet, and it was clear to me that leaving would give me a better perspective on the life I had lived thus far.


Okay, phew! We’re halfway there. These are only two of the four reasons I’m going to talk about in this article, so in the interest of not making this blog post too long, I’m going to split it up into two sections. I hope you’re enjoying it.

Continue on to part 2.

22 thoughts on “Why I quit my job as a professional ballet dancer

  1. sorokowski

    Lucas, I am impressed by your clarity. I am impressed by your ability to write about your journey. I support your explorations.

    Buddha once said, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.” You may have stepped off the “professional ballet dancer” path for the time being, however you have stepped onto a new path that I know will lead you to new adventures. Although your new path may be difficult at times as you continue on your journey, the view at the top is spectacular!

    I look forward to reading “round two.”

    Nick

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nick. I’m pretty sure I won’t make it to the top of any mountain, but, I’m sure enjoying the view right now! The path forward is enjoyably (and a bit frighteningly) nebulous. Let’s just hope I don’t fall down a ravine 🙂

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  2. doncolburn

    First, I admire your courage, along with your clear and thoughtful writing about a difficult decision. I still cringe at that word “quit” because it feels loaded and unfair — to yourself. Not just because, as you readily explain, this may be simply a gap year. But in the larger sense, you have quit on nothing. Quite the opposite. You are taking on a fuller life. Cheers for that. And I say that without even knowing Part Two! Part One is sufficient, but I look forward to reading (even) more.

    Don

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    1. Thanks Don. I’m glad you understand my decision. I’ve spoken to some that feel that I’m simply making a mistake here. But I know that even if I do return to the ballet world, I’ll have experienced something outside of it. And yes I agree that “quit” isn’t the right word, since it sounds only like a reaction to something negative. I don’t feel that way: I see this decision very much as an opportunity.

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      1. doncolburn

        Thanks again, Lucas. I didn’t mean to imply that you chose the wrong word for your title and summary — in fact you are quitting your current routine and day job for a year — just to suggest that you are anything but a quitter. Your choice, and the thoughtful reasons for it, are so much larger, as your life will be — even if you return to professional dancing a year from now.

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  3. Good for you Lucas, I know you’ve thought about this for some time. Your skills and talents as a dancer will not leave you, no matter what the traditional narrative is about time away from training. We (Ballet Dancers) are all forced to stop being working dancers at some point, whether we want it or not and it’s the ones (myself included) who can’t easily let go that suffer the most. Opening up your life to the other 99% of reality that exists outside of the hothouse world of Dance is always an eye opener…sometimes making a return to your former life a relief, sometimes a horror. Looking forward to hearing more about your experience.

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    1. Well said. I suppose the question of whether I could come back to dance if I chose to was the big one, but, like I said, I don’t feel attached to that label anymore! So regardless of what happens in the future, I look forward to it – challenges and all. That traditional narrative works for many, but I’m glad to be making my own path.

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  4. Eileen Threefoot

    Thank you for putting your thoughts regarding this momentous decision down for all to see, and hopefully understand. Your father and I are proud of you for following your heart, Lucas, no matter where it takes you. We trust your judgment, and we love and support you unequivocally. We will continue to be your Number One Fans no matter what path you choose. And we, too, look forward to the next chapter, in both senses of the word!

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  5. Elise Legere

    Oh Lucas,
    Weather it is a brief hiatus or a career changing decision it is such a monumental choice for anyone who has given their heart, soul and body to ballet for so long. It is an exciting voyage ahead of you, there is sooooo much out there to experience and explore. Your brain with thrive at the prospect of all the adventures ahead of you. Widen that focus, live that life outside of the studio.
    My best to you.

    Like

  6. Jenna Partridge

    So amazing ,Lucas , you’ve decided to make this monumental leap. . …. pun intended!
    So courageous, SO exciting , so well thought out.
    I also admire your tenacity . How you question your life’s work. Your determination to take this life of yours and use all corners, experience everything that is calling you. How wonderful ! I love reading your blog . So well written, and so well thought out, this decision of yours. Know you are supported . I look forward to the 2nd half.
    Jenna

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  7. Virginia Belt

    Lucas thank you for this. As an ex professional ballet dancer myself so much of what you write rings true. There is one grand full world out there and I have loved the journey through much of it. Never knew I would come back to dance through teaching Dance for Parkinson’s but here I am. May your journeys be magical and your mind nourished.

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  9. Lucas, thanks for sharing your thoughts and process. To step away of your own volition at a time when a world of experiences beckons is empowering. (Tennyson- “”tis not to late to seek a newer world.”) Any field you bring yourself to will be richer for your thoughtful and curious mind. I wish you broad horizons and adventures my friend! All the best to you, and keep writing! 😘

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