The conclusion of “La Sonnambula” by the New York City Ballet on Oct. 18, 2014, was much more than your average closing night. It was also the farewell performance of Wendy Whelan, an awe-inspiring ballerina who danced with the company for 30 years. However, Whelan’s departure from the NYC Ballet is by no means the end of her career, but it does bring to light the struggles that professional dancers face after retirement.
The Rise of a Star
Wendy Whelan, who was born and raised in Kentucky, began training as a professional ballerina at age 8. Her first performance was as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet’s production of the beloved classic, “The Nutcracker.” Her modest start is proof to all dance students that no one immediately puts on pointe shoes and steps into the limelight. It’s a journey that relies on hard work and dedication.
In 1981, Whelan got her big break when she received a scholarship to attend a summer course at the School of American Ballet. Within a year, she was a full-time student at the school, and in 1984, Whelan became an apprentice with the NYC Ballet. Slowly, but surely, she climbed through the company’s ranks. She achieved the title of principal dancer during the 1991 spring season.
During her career, Whelan performed as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and the Maryinsky Ballet. She also originated several roles in pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and more.
Life After Ballet
Unfortunately, Whelan sustained a serious injury in the fall of 2012, when she was 44 years old. According to The Atlantic magazine, she pulled her hamstring and a few months later discovered she had a labral tear in her hip. It took many months for the ballerina to recuperate and led to her eventual decision to retire from the company that had been her home for so many years.
As is the case with many professional dancers, Whelan began to worry about her financial security a few months before her farewell performance.
“We’re not supported federally at all once we leave the ballet,” Whelan told The Atlantic in March 2014. “There is no support whatsoever, financially or insurance wise for dancers in the United States.”
Dancers begin training at such a young age that their education is often put on the back burner. When they retire, usually between age 30 and 40, they have to re-enter the working world, often without a college degree or significant work experience.
Whelan told The Atlantic that she was considering becoming a dance teacher, but it looks like dance students will have to wait a few more years before learning from the legend. The NYC Ballet reports that Whelan has been appointed Artistic Associate at the New York’s City Center for the next two years. She is working with Edward Watson, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, to develop a program that will premiere in London during the summer of 2015. The collaboration will debut in New York in 2016.
A Lesson for Students
Wendy Whelan’s story, and that of many other professional dancers, brings to light the struggle of transitioning from life on stage to that in the working world. A study from the aDvANCE Project sound that most dancers expect to perform into their 40s, but on average retire in their mid-30s. Further, 98 percent of current dancers claim they are aware of the challenges they’ll face once their career is over, but former dancers admit they weren’t prepared for the transition. Teachers molding the next generation of Wendy Whelan’s might add a little bit of reality to their lessons. Dance students should be educated about the realistic longevity of a professional career and the importance of an education in their life post-dance.