So, I just the left the world of dance. And you’ve heard my story. But there are lots of other stories out there, often untold to the dance world. Or worse, misunderstood. When we are involved in an endeavor that has required such dedication to reach our level, it can be hard to understand why someone would give all that up.
This is Chloe Shelby’s story. She came up through the school of Oregon Ballet Theatre when I was in the company. She was one of the top students in her class, technically skilled, and smart to boot. I remember watching her in class and onstage and thinking “Man, will I ever have that kind of control?”
However, once she joined the professional world, it turned out that Chloe’s talent wasn’t enough to keep her going. This is not to say that she didn’t have the skills! Even with pure talent, the ballet world is tough – and without an inner fire and devotion to the work, it can be incredibly draining. As she explains, the professional dance world was entirely different from the one where she had been formed as a dancer, and her drive to continue hit a dead end.
But her future is no less bright because of it. Leaving the dance world can lead to so many different opportunities, and Chloe was able to find that inner fire elsewhere.
Now, enough of my writing – I’ll let her tell her own story! Please enjoy this guest post by Chloe Shelby.
Life cannot always be planned out. As much as we want to pave a clear path throughout our lifetime, there will be times when we have to face inevitable curveballs that sometimes bring disorder, frustration, confusion, and sadness. Although change can seem foreign and make you feel vulnerable, it can also cultivate the most profound and significant realizations you may have been blind to before.
For 15 years of my life, I dedicated my entire existence to ballet. Ballet was not just any old hobby; it was a lifestyle. Years after years were spent in the pale green and yellow walled
studios of Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) in Southeast Portland with windows so foggy you could barely see through them. Tears, blood, sweat, every inch of my soul, went into sculpting myself as a dancer and as a person. Under the burning laser-like stare of my teacher, there were many days when I felt as though I could no longer push. Exhaustion and pain were the normal. But there was something about her that made me keep fighting. An aura that I could not quite pinpoint surrounded every step, word, glare, smile, and turn of her head. You came to truly respect and idolize her. In a sense, she became my ballet mom.
When I left OBT and joined Colorado Ballet (CB) in the summer of 2013, I had no idea that I would be making one of the hardest decisions in my life only seven months later. Dancing at CB was a very eye-opening experience for me; one that really forced me to re-evaluate myself and ask myself what I wanted in life. Obviously, student life and company life are two very different things, and I think that’s what was key for me. Going in, I knew that my experience in Denver would in no way parallel the last 14 years of my life at OBT, but I didn’t know how much the difference would impact me. I no longer had a teacher who paid attention to me 24/7, and, as stupid as this may sound, I essentially had to learn how to work for myself. Quite frankly, what I realized is that I never loved ballet for myself.
When I was deciding on whether I would return to Denver for a second season I thought about so many things and felt so many emotions. It was an extremely draining time. Making a decision was difficult because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I thought about all of my teachers and what they might think of me if I decided to stop dancing. Throughout my whole life, everyone (myself included) had just sort of pushed me to pursue a career as a dancer, but I didn’t know if I really loved ballet. I wasn’t sure if I was anything beyond a technician.
Although my perspective has definitely changed, at the time, quitting seemed synonymous to failing, and the idea of walking away from ballet after having dedicated so many years to the art form made me feel like I had wasted all those years. People kept telling me the same thing when I said I was thinking about quitting: that I was so talented and that they were surprised that I would want to quit. I guess it was the surprise in their voice that was hard to handle when the decision I was making was already so difficult by itself.
Despite these doubts, I reminded myself of all the things I had accomplished and that my experiences, relationships, successes, and failures have made me who I am today. Reminiscing about special moments when I felt powerful on stage, such as the time I performed Coppélia, helped me realize that ballet had given me so many wonderful opportunities that I would carry with me as I moved onto the next chapter of my life. However, what I realized by the end of the season was that I didn’t truly love ballet. There were absolutely things I loved, and still love about it, but at the end of the day, when I really asked myself, I knew I didn’t love it like I should.
My thought process in Denver should make it abundantly clear why leaving dance, by choice, is so hard. And even after making the decision to stop dancing, it is by no means easy. I think a lot of people have this idea that you’re going to be happy and excited once you’ve made a choice because all of a sudden you have a plethora of other options to explore. This may be the case for some, but, for me, it took at least a year and a half before I knew what I wanted to do. Having had such a direct path for 15 years made it overwhelming when I knew I had so many options to choose from. I struggled with finding the right path because when I left ballet, I felt like I needed to do something “great”. I had this weird idea that I needed to prove myself to people. Honestly, looking back, I have no idea who I thought I needed to prove myself to, but that’s what I thought.
With that mindset, I thought about med school, as it’s an honorable career and something that requires you to put your all into it.
I think most dancers would agree with the following statement. In a nutshell, the dancer mindset is that you can always be better. You can never stop improving and refining yourself as a dancer. That’s why ballet is so powerful and beautiful. That’s why it was never boring to watch Alison Roper, Gavin Larsen, Yuka Iino, Kathi Martuza, and Anne Mueller. They always brought something new to each piece and individualized their work in a way that was cohesive and true to themselves.
We are expected to aim for perfection, even though perfection is a fallacy and we know it’s a fallacy. With that mindset, you can see why it would make sense for a former dancer to want to aim for something that requires you to put everything into it. Ballet is, without a doubt, an all or nothing art form. You cannot approach it in any other way.
So with the goal of becoming a doctor in mind, I set off working hard at my classes and studying day and night. Now I should be clear that I’ve always loved science, and choosing a career in medicine logically aligned with this interest in science. However, despite my efforts in my classes, there was something about med school that didn’t excite me like I wanted it to. I struggled with this and tried to ignore my hesitations about med school for a long time. After taking chemistry during my first year of college, I was inspired by my teacher who had such an enthusiastic presence and passion for teaching. She really made me think about considering teaching as a career, and I always loved helping classmates when I had the opportunity. However, it wasn’t until winter term of my sophomore year in college, after I started tutoring, that I knew teaching was the career I wanted to pursue.
Almost immediately, I fell in love with teaching, the process of working with students, and the very visible growth of the tutoring center’s “regulars” that I observed. There is something so rewarding about seeing a student, who is frustrated and nearing the point of giving up, start to understand a concept and get excited about the material. Those “light bulb moments,” if you will, are truly inspiring and incredibly amazing. Ultimately, my tutoring experience allowed me to realize that med school was not for me, but that teaching was. I was excited to “work” every day. In fact, it didn’t even seem like work. Each day was different and I loved that. Even when I wasn’t “working” I would constantly find myself thinking about my tutoring methods or how I could have explained a particular concept better. In a way, the opportunity to tutor really changed my life. It provided me with clarity and a new sense of direction.
Overall, I just want to close with a summary of my thoughts.
- One: be proud of yourself no matter what your career is, and surround yourself with people who offer support and encouragement.
- Two: not everyone is going to like what you do, so be aware of that, don’t get too offended, and just don’t waste your time on those people.
- Three: change is always hard, but sometimes you learn a lot about yourself during the process, and the hardest transitions or moments in your life make you stronger and build your character even further.
- Four: truly listen to advice from those that inspire you and make sure they know you appreciate them and their advice.
- And five: do what you love no matter what anyone says. It’s your life to live, and you only get one shot at it.
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3 thoughts on “Another perspective on leaving the ballet world: Chloe Shelby”
I remember Chloe very well indeed. And I think this is an excellent and interesting post; her voice here is as strong as her presence was on stage. And I’ll bet money that she is one of the great teachers, and as everyone knows who went to school, they are few and far between.
I bet. And I’m sure her training provided her with invaluable skills for the future, regardless of where she ends up!
Thank you so much for this post! As a dancer who also trained with the intent to dance professionally before finding a different life’s calling, the ability to relate to your experiences was comforting and inspirational. You are a wonderful voice for the growing, public number of dancers who are speaking honestly about the emotional repercussions of leaving the field. And I agree- your very reflections in your post prove that you are not a failure, but a wise and strong role model who has become adept at performing the well-rounded dance known as life.
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