Ballet Dancers and The Exploration of A Performance Career
By Heejin Kim
According to Gordon (1983), “[ballet dancers] are not ordinary people with ordinary needs and ordinary desires; they are a breed apart” (p. 7). The ballet world is unique that it has its own set of norms and customs (Hamilton, 1998). Dancers are famous for their extraordinary dedication for their pursuit (Hamilton, 1998; Hamilton, Solomon & Solomon, 2006), and “art does not exist to serve life; life exists to serve art” in the ballet world (Gordon, 1986, p. 102). Ballet dancers are required to sustain their deep sense of commitment and single-minded focus from their early childhood to adulthood (Hamilton, 1998; Kelman, 2000; Pickard & Bailey, 2009) to perform on the professional level. Ballet dancers endure exceptional adversity not only during their training (Montanari & Zietkiewicz, 2000), but also in their performance career (Hernandez, 2012; Kelman, 2000). The adversity experienced by ballet dancers are well documented in the existing literature, and the majority of the previous studies on ballet dancers has largely focused on one specific challenge, such as psychological distress (Mainwaring & Finney, 2017), body image (Radell, Keneman, Mandradjieff, Adame, & Cole, 2017), physical injury (Smith, Gerrie, Varner, McCulloch, Lintner, & Harris, 2015), nutrition (Lee, Kim, & Kim, 2015), eating disorder (Peric, Zenic, Sekulic, Kondric, & Zaletel, 2016), or retirement and career transition (Roncaglia, 2008; Wainwright & Turner, 2006; Willard & Lavallee, 2016). It is worth noting that there is dearth of research on a more integrative exploration of ballet dancers’ experiences using their voice (Gray & Kunkel, 2001).
Outside of academia, dance magazines or books included interviews with ballet dancers to explore their stories in their performance career (e.g., Eichenbaum, 2013) from their perspectives. These stories were mostly shared by ballet dancers who reached the top level of the hierarchy among dancers in a ballet company and they focused on their objective career success. However, the dancers who reached that high level of objective success in their career are not the majority. For example, at the National Ballet of Canada, out of 78 dancers, there are only 13 principal dancers. Therefore, the voice and perspectives of the majority of professional ballet dancers are not well represented.
As shown in the previous research, the ballet world can be demanding and stressful for dancers (Hernandez, 2012; Kelman, 2000; Mainwaring & Finney, 2017). However, there are many dancers who persevere in their career with or without objective career success despite of the challenges with their performance career. Little attention has been given to exploring processes and factors that help ballet dancers to persevere in their career using their voice, and this lack of a more integrative exploration of ballet dancers’ experiences from their perspectives translated into little knowledge about perseverance and resilience in a ballet performance career.
To address this gap in the existing literature, future research exploring personal wisdom based on insight gained from one’s own lived experience (Staudinger, 1999) about persevering in a ballet company shared by retired professional ballet dancers may be useful. Personal wisdom differs from general wisdom because it focuses on advice based on individual, personal experience, and foresight rather than on advice based on taking an observer’s perspective about life (Mickler & Standinger, 2008), and this focus on personhood would be important to explore what makes ballet dancers persevere and resilient in their poteran career, which is different from a more traditional, organizational career due to its focus on individual responsibility for job performance, freedom and growth, high degree of mobility and job insecurity, and subjective success (Hall, 1976).
Heejin Kim is a Master’s student in Counselling Psychology at University of Victoria, working under the supervision of Dr. Susan Tasker. As a former pre-professional ballet dancer and a counsellor in training, Heejin feels passionate about highlighting the experiences of ballet dancers using their voice and fostering their perseverance and resilience in the ballet world.
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