Butterfly Professions: Handling the Ending Edge

How do you handle the end of a career that's defined who you are?

Posted Sep 13, 2016

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Well, for fastest, we’ve got Michael Phelps. Or Usain Bolt. Guys who’ve proved themselves. Who are extraordinary. Who are, in their early 30s, ready to retire.


When their peers are just getting established in their careers?

It seems pretty glamorous. And for the Phelpses and Bolts of this world, there are many ways in which it is.

At the same time, by retiring, even these super-stars are letting go of their identity, their purpose, their daily routine, their social network. That’s a lot of change!

What if you’re not a super-star? What if the end of your career doesn’t have the punctuation mark of the Olympics?

In a recent blog, I wrote about a number of the similarities between athletes and performing artists. Here, I want to share with you some thoughts about the career ending for people who are in “butterfly professions.” That’s a label that a ballet dancer used to describe professions that have brief, extraordinary moments of success—such as competitive sports and dance, particularly ballet. It’s beautiful…and then it’s over.

And I want to highlight an opportunity to learn about and discuss this important time of transition for both athletes and dancers: LEAP Together—Leading Edge After Performance—will bring together performers and scholars, people in the process of contemplating this change, those who already have “leapt” into their new lives, and those who support and work with them on this process. We have much to learn from each other.

The subtitle of a recent book by Canadian Olympic rower Krista Guloien helps us unpack what’s going on: Beyond the Finish Line: What Happens When the Endorphins Fade. Endorphins, of course, is a shorthand for the various biochemical we experience with high energy performance. It’s perhaps a metaphor, too, for that sense of loss, of ending…and the question: what next?

Bonnie Kim, a dancer, shares some of her transition:

“As a kid make-believing at home, all throughout my training and most of my performing career, the idea of doing anything else with my life never seriously crossed my mind. My world – career, friends, social life and identity – became firmly rooted in dance.”

But in her late 20s and early 30s,

“I found myself embarking on a very scary and confusing period of change. I mean, how do you even begin to transition to another career, when you have absolutely no idea how to do anything but dance?”

Some other stories about this process—and it is a process, not just a moment in time—are available at the LEAP website: http://leaptransition.ca/profiles-of-transition/

Just in time for this blog (or, alternatively, inspiring this blog!), I’ve recently read a professional article that presents the results of in depth interviews with elite professional ballet dancers in England on their experience of retirement. The authors quote psychologist Nancy Schlossberg’s definition of transition: “an event or non-event, which results in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and thus requires a corresponding change in one’s behavior and relationships.”

This transition depends on a number of elements:

  • the individual’s characteristics, such as their gender, age, and previous experiences of transition
  • the transition type itself, for example, why it’s happening, what kinds of changes in role are involved, and how stressful it is for the person, and
  • their environment, in terms of organizational and personal supports.

From the world of sport, there’s an additional factor:

  • the person’s athletic (or in this case, ballet) identity.

On the one hand, this sense of self-definition can be really important to the person’s focus on performance during their performing career. On the other, this “all the eggs in one basket” method of defining oneself can be really challenging when that identity is directly challenged—as in the transition process. Add to that sense of self the daily life and social connections, all of which are also tied to this identity, and the process of disentangling oneself from this excellent web of connection and self becomes that much more challenging.

In their post-ballet interviews, the authors heard important issues about the transition process: “Ballet’s not a job, it’s a dream it’s a passion….So determined that almost nothing else existed.”  “When I retired I think you kind of lose yourself.”  

What made retirement from dance really manageable was having begun the retirement process before retiring. With the assistance of a dancer transition program (see iotpd.org for such organizations around the world), the dancers had developed plans for a year before they actually stopped dancing. The combination of a specific plan and staying busy—not taking time off—seemed to be especially useful: “Having something in place took away that fear element of god what am I going to do.”

Getting social support through this process was also really important, whether family or other dancers. Some of the dancers found it especially helpful to connect with recently retired dancers, who served as “mentors” through the process.

If you find these connections and overlaps between athletes and dancers as intriguing as I do, I hope you will join us at the LEAP Conference!

For further information, feel free to contact me through my website, www.theperformingedge.com.