First-person perspectives on the world of work
Photo: Andre Uspenski

The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 26
Skills, Knowledge and Employability

Living to dance and dancing to live

1 November 2022

The career of a professional dancer appears glamorous, but it is also precarious. Dancers begin training intensively when young, when others are focused on studying to get qualifications. Then their professional performance careers are short, even assuming they aren't ended early by accident or injury.

So, what happens to dancers when they stop performing? What’s it like to have a career that relies heavily on the physical ability of youth, and how easy is it to build a second one?

Jennifer Curry, Executive Director of Dancers' Career Development, and William Bracewell, Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet Company, join us to describe the hurdles and opportunities of a career that can end so soon after it starts.


Hello and welcome to The ILO's Future of Work Podcast, I'm Sophy Fisher.

This time, we're looking at something you may regard as an art form,

but is also a job, albeit a very different one,

the world of the professional dancer.

The career of a professional dancer is precarious.

They need to train intensively when young

when many of us are studying to get academic or technical qualifications.

Then their professional performance careers are comparatively short.

Perhaps into their mid-30s or maybe their 40s

and that assumes it isn't all ended early and suddenly by an accident or an injury.

What happens to dancers when they have to stop performing?

What's it like to have a career that relies

so heavily on the physical ability of youth?

With me today is Jennifer Curry

who is Executive Director of Dancers Career Development.

DCD is a non-profit organization that helps all kinds

of professional dancers plan career changes.

We also have William Bracewell.

William is a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet Company in London.

He started dancing as a child and has won multiple awards.

This season he'll be on stage

at the Royal Opera House in London dancing leading roles

in some of their most important productions.

William and Jennifer, welcome to you both,

and thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Thank you for having us.

It's lovely to be here.

William, first of all, when did you start dancing as a child

and when did you realize

that this might actually be a professional career

and not just something you enjoyed doing?

Of course.

I started ballet training when I was nine years old in Swansea,

which wasn't the most popular choice of after-school activity.

I was, I think, one of the only boy in my class,

but there was something about it that just really intrigued me.

If you, I guess, cut forward to the age of 13,

I was lucky enough to get into the Royal Ballet School at the age of 11.

I moved away from home which was a big change.

I think it was around the age of realized that this potentially could be a job.

There was a lot of work to do to get to a point to achieve

the things that I was seeing professional dancers doing on stage,

and to be able to,

not just the physical side of what I needed to do with my body,

but in terms of, I guess, the way I needed to emotionally act

and be able to tell stories in the way

that I was so captured in performances that I'd seen.

Age 13 is when a lot of kids are basically starting

their serious academic work.

Ballet takes hours and hours of training and practice.

How do you balance at that age?

Or perhaps you can't balance that age

the academic requirements with the ballet requirements.

Do you have to compromise on the academics?

Interestingly, I would say both of my sisters were just

very much more innately academic than I was,

but because I went to the Royal Ballet School

which had much smaller class sizes, we got more attention

and more catering to us individually in our academic studies.

I ended up at the age of 16 coming out with better grades

than my sisters had even though they were--

Even acknowledged by my mum,

they were generally more academic than I was.

Although I had the equivalent of a degree from my dance training,

that was something both my sisters went on to formally study in.

I would say the school did a brilliant job

at providing us with both of these academic skills

and incredible dance skills.

That is to say, it was a really, really difficult

and grueling schedule.

I look back at it now, and I don't think I could do it as an adult. [laughs]

Tell us about an average day.

Average day would be probably 7:30 up 8:15 you'd already be

in registration ready for your first set of classes until around 10:30.

Then you'd have ballet class till lunch.

Then you'd have another set of academic studies after lunch.

Then you would have an afternoon of either--

It would alternate either academics or dancing.

Then you'd have more dancing in the evening till around 5:30, 6:00,

then it would be dinner,

and then you'd have another hour of homework time in the evening,

and that was Monday to Friday,

and then there would be supplementary classes on a Saturday.

It was a lot of work,

but I do generally think it's afforded me

this career that I absolutely love now.

Let's spool forward a little bit,

and now you are a very well-established professional dancer

at the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet Company.

I hope this is not an inappropriate question,

but how long do you expect to be able to keep that up?

No, not at all.

It's one of the things that I think DCD

are brilliant at is in the most kind way possible,

they help you realize that this career,

it will definitely end at some point.

I would be--

If I made it to 40, I would be thrilled.

If it was before then, then that would be great as well.

I had an incident where I had to have back surgery about three

or four years ago, and there was a time during that process

where I did think I would potentially not dance again.

I've worked through some of the psychology

of what that's like to have it taken away potentially prematurely.

That's one of the shocking things about dancing.

Looking on the internet,

I've seen that the injury rate is comparable to football or wrestling,

and literally, you could go on stage,

an ankle could turn the wrong way, and that's it.

Has that happened to some of your colleagues?

Yes, unfortunately, I have known a handful of people

that have had such serious injuries that they weren't able

to make it back to dancing but it's rare

that people don't make it back at all, but it does unfortunately happen.

Jennifer, let me bring you in here.

William basically had the best training available, possibly,

at White Lodge, The Royal Ballet Company's Junior School

and he got very good academic training as well as ballet training,

but you deal with dancers from all kinds of backgrounds.

Is this common or do you find that some of them have had to compromise

on other qualifications to get on in their dance profession?

I think that's a really interesting point

and I think it really depends on the individual dancer.

I think what we're seeing now

is a real culture change within the industry.

I think there's much more emphasis

now on dancers as individual human beings,

so therefore thinking about dancers as the whole self

and thinking about a long-term career and what that might look like.

I think we're seeing some really positive changes

within training institutions, but you are absolutely right

in that the dedication, the time, the focus,

the commitment that is required to train to the highest level

within dance to enable a professional career

can sometimes, not always,

but can sometimes mean that academic qualifications

can fall less down the priority list.

Also, I think, it's around

what other things do young dancers might have to sacrifice

to reach that professional level.

We know that dancers are in training often surrounded by other dancers

and so what we do at DCD, particularly through our work with students,

is to encourage the students to think about themselves, yes, as dancers,

but also as individuals and to consider themselves in the wider world

and actually how considering yourself

within the wider world can actually contribute to your performance career.

William, does anybody ever talk to you, or did anybody ever talk to you

or your colleagues about things like health and injury insurance,

pensions, stuff like that?

Yes, we have an amazing healthcare team,

we did at the school and more so in the company

especially going through a big injury,

I learned so much about my general health,

the psychology of my performance career.

I've got a pension if you're happy to know.

Yes, there's a pension--

That we're encouraged to, obviously,

pay into our pension scheme because we will most definitely need it.

I do have to say that, Jennifer, when I first experienced DCD

when I was at Birmingham Royal for seven years,

that was probably the first time that I began

the conversation around contributing more.

Not being quite so single-minded in my approach to dance,

and I can't champion DCD enough in what they're doing

to change dancers' perception of the dance world

and what they are able to do on a much wider perspective.

I think they've been-- The DCD have been key

in changing that conversation.

Jennifer, do you find--

Is it common among the dancers that you talk

to that they have thought at all or even put in place

things like insurance and pensions and so forth?

What are they looking at when they finish dancing?

Again, I think it's really changing.

I think dancers that are coming through training

and that are in professional companies and freelance dance artists,

as well, are really having to think seriously about lifelong careers.

I think the COVID Pandemic particularly really highlighted

the precarity of a dancer's career, particularly those freelance dancers,

but also the many hundreds of dancers

within companies across the UK and the world.

I think we are seeing a change.

We are seeing that dancers are much more aware of the opportunities

that come with thinking about career development.

The opportunity is now to explore different sides of who you are.

I think the work that we do at DCD,

what's so inspiring to me is that we help retain really talented,

highly skilled individuals within the dance sector

and within the performing arts and cultural sectors,

dancers retraining as choreographers, as teachers,

as lighting designers, the list goes on.

Also, we have dancers that move completely away from the sector

and are joining the workforce as florists,

plumbers, lawyers, doctors.

It's really inspiring and fascinating to me that, as individuals,

just with that little bit of support, actually,

what they can go on to achieve.

Yes. Let's talk a little bit then about transferable skills.

You mentioned choreography, and that's quite an obvious one.

Dance teaching, that's another fairly obvious one,

but there are more dancers in the world

than there are needs for choreographers.

Rather than looking at the professions,

if you break down the skills that William and other dancers have,

let me put this to both of you, what would you say

that they are that they could bring to any other profession?

Gosh, I think there's so many.

Obvious ones of creativity, resilience, the work ethic, dedication,

focus, flexibility, teamwork, working on your own, empathy, courage,

grit, all of these skills I think

that dancers have in an abundance,

and dancers, I think, have a really unique way of navigating the world.

I think what DCD are here to do is, first of all,

encourage dancers to take some time to really recognize

what they have and what they have to offer,

but then also to match that up with potential employers

and to encourage employers to really see dancers

for who they are and what they can contribute.

William, do you want to add anything to that rather impressive list of skills?

No. I think the thing that I sort of noticed, I think,

over my experience with other dancers is having gone

through quite an intense period of training at very young age,

you realize working incredibly hard is very, very day to day to us.

What is amazing about the people that I work with

is the variety of skills that they bring to work.

I think that's what DCD do so well,

is they look at the individual,

and they're able to delve in and find the skills that maybe

they don't actually use all that often

in their dance careers but are innately there within the individual,

and they change vastly from person to person.

Yes. I suppose those would include things like memory

because you have to learn all those different roles.

Yes, absolutely.

A day this week I rehearsed five different ballets in a day

and then had a performance in the evening.

They've got, yes, but I wouldn't particularly say my memory

is brilliant but it obviously is the dance steps

which must be transferrable in multiple ways.

Jennifer, I noticed that on the DCD's website

you have an interesting tagline

which is that the first call is the hardest.

Now, that implies to me that in transferring out

of dance performance into other things,

there's also a big psychological element.


I think, and William can, of course, speak better to this than I can,

but I think from our perspective,

we see dancers who have started thinking about this profession,

as William said earlier,

from a very early age and have had to have been very,

very single-minded in order to reach the level

that they are in terms of a professional career.

It can really be absolutely terrifying for a dancer to think about

what they might do when they're not performing.

A dancer is absolutely who you are

and what DCD is saying is that that won't change.

You will always be a dancer but what can you add to that?

What else can you offer and contribute to the world?

Absolutely, it can be a terrifying thought,

and it can be very, very scary.

What we encourage dancers, all dancers to do is to come to DCD

and build that relationship as early as possible in their career so that

when the time does come, dancers feel prepared, they feel curious,

and actually, they feel excited about what else they can do,

but we're very aware

that it can be a very, very difficult time.

Yes. I saw the quote from Martha Graham, the famous choreographer,

which is "A dancer dies twice and the first time is the most painful,"

but that's pretty negative actually, really, isn't it?


What DCD says is that that doesn't have to happen.

Of course, we acknowledge that it's a very,

very difficult time and that's why DCD exists purely

to support dancers because it's very, very specific.

Actually, let's turn that around.

What are the opportunities within transition?

Of course, we know that outside of dance individuals are transitioning

and moving into different careers all of the time

and individuals will now, more often than not,

have four or five different careers and perhaps a portfolio career.

Absolutely, we encourage dancers to see it as an opportunity.

William, what things do you see your former colleagues going into

or your current colleagues talking about?

It really does vary hugely.

I think teaching is a big one.

Some choreography, some arts management that--

But my partner who is a freelance performer really did

struggle during the lockdown.

He, obviously, had no work, so retrained as a florist and now we try

and grow as many of our own flowers

as possible for him to use in his work.

Yes, doctors, medicine, the range is incredibly varied, photography.


I'm getting wider from what Jennifer says.

Some finance, some-- yes.

Have you thought at all about, hopefully in the long-distance future,

what you might want to do after you stop performing?

I've given it a lot of thought,

and I think I've fallen into the second category

that Jennifer was talking about where

DCD have been there from very early on in my career.

I've started to have these conversations

and have these thought processes going on for many years.

I'm not certain at all about what I want to do,

but the thought of reaching that point isn't scary.

I sometimes get quite excited thinking about the possibilities

of what I could do next because as much as I love ballet,

it's really, really difficult, and it can take its toll.

So on those days where I'm just really exhausted,

I sometimes daydream about this slightly less

physically grueling career that I would have after this.

Well, I do hope actually that

that will not be for some years to come

and we will have the pleasure of seeing you

on stage for quite a long time to come.

Look, that's, I'm afraid, all we have time for today so many,

many thanks to both Jennifer Curry and William Bracewell for joining us.

If you want to find out more about DCD,

there is a link to their website on the website of this podcast,

and if you want to see William dance,

and I highly recommend that you should,

you can look at the website of the Royal Ballet

in London for information about cast lists and, of course,

they also have Global rebroadcasts of live

and recorded ballet performances.

For now, let me wish you all goodbye,

and I hope you will join us again soon

for another edition of the ILO Future of Work Podcast.



World Ballet Day 2022