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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 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 translates 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 as 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 protean 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.    


Eichenbaum, R. (2013). The Dancer Within: Intimate conversations with great dancers. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Gray, K. M., & Kunkel, M. A. (2001). The experience of female ballet dancers: A grounded theory. High Ability Studies, 12(1), 7-25. doi:10.1080/13598130120058662

Gordon, S. (1983). Off balance: The real world of ballet. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, D. (1976). Careers in Organizations.

Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman. Hamilton, L. H. (1998). Advice for dancers: Emotional counsel and practical strategies. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Hamilton, L. H.,

Solomon, R., & Solomon, J. (2006). A proposal for standardized psychological screening of dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 10(1-2), 40-45.

Hernandez, B. M. (2012). Addressing occupational stress in dancers. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 83(6), 3-50. doi:10.1080/07303084.2012.10598784

Kelman, B. B. (2000). Occupational hazards in female ballet dancers: advocate for a forgotten population. American Association of Occupational Health Nursing Journal, 48(9), 430-434.

Lee, H., Kim, D., & Kim, S. (2015). An analysis of nutrients intake, related factors of anemia and bone density in ballet dancers. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 8(25), 1-6. doi:10.17485/ijst/2015/v8i25/80463

Mainwaring, L. M., & Finney, C. (2017). Psychological risk factors and outcomes of dance injury: a systematic review. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 21(3), 87-96. doi:10.12678/1089-313x.21.3.87

Mickler, C. & Standinger, U. M. (2008). Personal wisdom: Validation and age-related differences of a performance measure. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 787-799. doi:10.1037/a0013928

Montanari, A., & Zietkiewicz, E. A. (2000). Adolescent South African Ballet Dancers. South African Journal of Psychology, 30(2), 31–35. doi:10.1177/008124630003000204

Peric, M., Zenic, N., Sekulic, D., Kondric, M., & Zaletel, P. (2016). Disordered eating, amenorrhea, and substance use and misuse among professional ballet dancers: Preliminary analysis. Medycyna Pracy, 67(1), 21-27. doi:10.13075/mp.5893.00294

Pickard, A., & Bailey, R. (2009). Crystallising experiences among young elite dancers. Sport, Education and Society, 14(2), 165-181. doi:10.1080/13573320902809047

Radell, S. A., Keneman, M. L., Mandradjieff, M. P., Adame, D. D., & Cole, S. P. (2017). Comparison study of body image satisfaction between beginning- and advanced-level female ballet students. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 21(4), 135-143.

Roncaglia, I. (2008). The ballet dancing profession: a career transition model. Australian Journal of Career Development, 17(1), 50-59. doi:10.1177/103841620801700108

Smith, P. J., Gerrie, B. J., Varner, K. E., McCulloch, P. C., Lintner, D. M., & Harris, J. D. (2015). Incidence and prevalence of musculoskeletal injury in ballet: A systematic review. Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 3(7), 1-9. doi:10.1177/2325967115592621

Staudinger, U. M. (1999). Older and wiser? Integrating results on the relationship between age and wisdom-related performance. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23(3), 641-664. doi:10.1080/016502599383739

Wainwright, S. P., & Turner, B. S. (2006). ‘Just crumbling to bits’? An exploration of the body, ageing, injury and career in classical ballet dancers. Sociology, 40(2), 237-255. doi:10.1177/0038038506062031

Willard, V. C., & Lavallee, D. (2016). Retirement experiences of elite ballet dancers: Impact of self-identity and social support. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(3), 266–279. doi:10.1037/spy0000057

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Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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