Olivia Duran started ballet when she was 3 years old, and it was love at first plié. From there, "I just kept going," she recently recalled over the phone, "and that was that!" Soon, she found herself at Elmhurst Ballet School, the prestigious training program affiliated with England's Birmingham Royal Ballet. She completed the school's full eight years of coursework, but as she neared the professional world, Duran felt more drawn to life as a cruise performer than as a traditional ballerina. Her final year was marked by audition circuits in London, which eventually landed her a contract with MSC Cruises.
After graduation in 2019, Duran returned home to Hampshire, UK, for a few short months to wait for the contract to begin—but with the onset of COVID-19, cruise ships stopped sailing and the job never came to fruition. Her stay at home became far more indefinite, and she was left to consider a life without dance at its center.
Olivia Duran (second from right) performs Paquita with the Elmhurst Ballet Company.
Andy Ross, Courtesy Elmhurst Ballet School
Duran is definitely not alone—as COVID-19 continues to prevent the dance world from returning to the stage, many advanced students and young professionals struggle with increased uncertainty as they try to launch their careers. Jessica Wheeler, the school principal at Elmhurst, currently works with several recent graduates who never had a chance to audition before the pandemic's start. Now, Wheeler allows them to return to school and receive free training in return for work experience alongside the school's staff.
But as the return to performances lingers further into the future, more young grads may be left wondering: Is this really for me?
Evaluate Your Relationship to Ballet
Patch Schwadron is a career-counselor supervisor at The Actors Fund, which supports artists in the U.S. in their post-performance lives. (Career Transitions For Dancers became a program of The Actors Fund in 2016.) Recently, she's spoken with clients and colleagues about the "chaos theory," a notion that Schwadron describes as "basically, nobody knows what's going to happen, so the best thing dancers can do is add to their skill set in preparation for future opportunities that align with their interests."
To start, Schwadron suggests asking yourself: "What is my relationship to ballet?" Make sure you answer honestly, and only for yourself. Then, let that guide your responsibilities going forward. "If it's 'I need to be a ballet dancer because it's the thing that really makes the most sense while I'm on this planet,'" she says, your responsibility is to keep in shape. But maybe you like working backstage or studying dance history—those would require different responsibilities, like researching education programs and perhaps finding local mentors to guide your search. Make a timeline for yourself to keep reevaluating. Every three or six months, ask if your relationship to dance has changed, and if it has, you can shift those responsibilities along with it.
Think Beyond Your Dance Skills
Wheeler employs similar advice with her students, and tells them to think about the future through the lens of a portfolio career, or one that incorporates multiple jobs. "The kinds of contracts where you would see dancers go to the Birmingham Royal Ballet or another large company and then just stay for a very long period of time are getting fewer," she explains. This was happening even before 2020, and COVID-19 will no doubt change the landscape even more. Now, she sees opportunities for students to build their future from a larger array of options: Some graduates "ended up setting up their own business or going into teaching or becoming a dance photographer," she says.
Going forward, Schwadron tells clients to start seeing themselves as people with expertise in a wider variety of subjects; in other words, you are a consultant with a range of services. One of the services will be your excellent dance skills, but during the wait for theaters to reopen, now might be a good time to develop some more. The Actors Fund offers no-cost workshops for strategies like this, but Schwadron also encourages students to try volunteering in their local communities. Start small, and only stick with what you like.
Many of these tactics helped Duran weigh her options after her contract was canceled. At home, she took advantage of the extra time to research another longtime interest: midwifery. After some more reflection, Duran officially changed course and is now in the beginning stages of midwifery training. "For me," she reflects, "it was when I would go to dance class and I would just enjoy it. It sounds like a really strange thing to say, but it was no longer 'I want to do this, this is what my life is.' It became just 'I love doing this for fun.'"
The distinction took time to identify, and sometimes it was hard to separate the feeling of change from the feeling of failure. But "it's not failure to decide that it's not what you want anymore," Duran says, "it's really growth."
Both Wheeler and Schwadron echo Duran's message: Changing your focus should never be taboo. "Success can look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people," Wheeler says. Take the time to figure out what it looks like to you.