“I dreamt of being ‘normal’ in all the senses you can imagine”, I wrote about my personal journey as I reflected on leaving the stage and point-shoes behind for a 2nd life. And as Carrie started to talk about the differentiation between ballet world and the normal world, I knew that this was going to be my most emotional interview I’ve ever done. I know dancers who stopped dancing. But up until now, I never felt the need – or I wasn’t ready myself – to dig deeper and challenge their approaches, strategies, surviving techniques during the transition period from career A to career B.
At first, I asked Carrie to write her story with her very own words. I wanted to give her the chance to bring forward what she feels comfortable with. Little did she know that I will not leave it at that. Talking with Carrie opened up memories, wounds, made me smile agreeably but it also made me re-visit some of my judgments about career change. Now, we invite you to our private zone and to be a fly on a room’s wall, where a former ballerina asks a former ballerina about how her body changed, how she found a new identity, what she finds the most bizarre in her new life, or what makes her study day and night to change her tiny point shoes to giant medical books.
Virag on behalf of MissCareer/Less: So tell me how many point-shoes you saved; you know, ‘just in case’?
Carrie Walsh: I actually still take a class on point every day! The problem about being retired is that you do not get them for free anymore, so I tend to layer on the jet glue to make each pair last as long as possible. (Sweet dancer’s problems – e.d)
MCL: Even though you wrote in your personal story that you always had two career desires, the answer for why you stopped dancing is not obvious. What triggered you to change? After all, we never leave Option One unless we miss something from it, right?
CW: I always knew that I wanted to become a doctor as I stop dancing. However, as the years passed I began to worry that I had run out of time. In the UK, there are very few options for non-traditional students to attend Medical School if they do not have science A-levels. While visiting New York for a holiday, I learnt about the special application for non-traditional students to the Columbia University, and suddenly I realised that this could be my opportunity to pursue my second dream.
MCL: So that was it: you saw the option, and you just jumped?
CW: I think that I really applied just to see if I could be a candidate at all – I did not apply to any other colleges. So, I was very surprised when I received my acceptance letter, along with the offer of a generous scholarship. It seemed like such an incredible offer that I realised I had to seize the opportunity and make the leap into the unknown. At that moment, I made the decision very quickly, which was good because I think that if I had hesitated, I might not have been brave enough to make the transition right there and then.
It was especially scary as I left Europe and moved across the Atlantic away from all my family and friends – in a sense, leaving everything familiar behind me, you know. The path to becoming a doctor is a long one. So I am happy that I decided to transition that early. If I had waited a few more years, it might have been really too late. And also, I may not have been brave enough to pack up my life and move so far away from everything I had known.
MCL: And I am sure it wasn’t easy. Why do you think many dancers never dare to change and try something else even if they feel stuck? Is it a question of daring or something else?
CW: I think that a lot of it comes from the fear of the unknown. I was very lucky to be brought up as a ‘normal girl’ at a regular academic school, with ‘normal’ non-ballet friends and parents who knew nothing about ballet. I sailed, did kung fu and had Saturday jobs where I worked as a waitress, in a bakery and at the check-in desk for British Airways. This exposure to the world outside of ballet might be the reason I was able to make the decision to transition. I can only imagine how terrifying this could be for anyone who had only known the dancer’s world.
MCL: You mentioned you are taking classes. So you’re still connected to dance…
CW: I take Nancy Bielski’s class at Steps on Broadway every day. Without her kindness, there is no way I could survive the stresses of Columbia. Taking Nancy’s class has been my saving grace – for an hour and a half each day I get to leave the stresses of my insanely demanding academic schedule and return to the routine I know so well. Also, my closest friends are ballet dancers or ballet teachers – so without seeing them every day and without their love and support I wouldn’t have made it this far.
MCL: Could you really do a cut-off? You know, saying goodbye and never look back?
CW: I ran into Heather Watts a few weeks ago as I was leaving Steps, and she said something that has resonated with me ever since – “Dance as long as you can Carrie, there is too much time not to dance; do it while you can”. I know there will be a time when I will have to say goodbye, but until then I choose to make time for it in my life. I always joke that I prefer to sleep 2 hours less if it means that I can take a ballet class – and I often do!!! (She laughs freely – e.d.)
MCL: This is very different from what I have done. And it makes me think whether it is really possible to change without a full cut off? Is it possible to move on with a half leg here a half leg there? I know, I couldn’t.
CW: I think you take a different perspective. It is hard because your body changes, you obviously get a lot heavier, and you don’t have the same kind of strength that you had when you were dancing eight hours every day, six days a week. As long as you can recognise that, and accept it, you can take a different approach. Classes become something that you do for you – no one is judging you anymore.
MCL: As you wrote in your story: ‘Bowing out of the world of ballet is probably one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever had to do’. How does your soul cope with seeing ballet from the outside? Are you (or will you be) able to look back without any frustrations, unfulfilled dreams?
CW: I am not going to lie; I usually end up sobbing through most full-length performances. It is getting better with time, but I still totally lose it watching ‘La Bayadere’ and ‘Swan Lake’.
MCL: How did you feel during the 1st month after you left the company?
CW: Empty – and if I am honest, completely terrified.
MCL: What was the hardest thing in the transition period?
CW: Sitting still! (we both laugh – e.d.) Being a normal person hurts! I couldn’t believe how stiff I would feel at the end of each day. I would sit in lectures constantly re-arranging my position. I have really long legs, so they would always feel extremely cramped and trapped under the desk or in the small place between the seats in the halls. I guess I just annoyed all my classmates as I fidgeted and again and again cracked my back and neck.
MCL: Do you ever have dreams of dance and the stage?
CW: In the beginning I did – I kept having the same dream that my ballet master was throwing me into a place in the second act of Swan Lake, but no one would tell me what version we were doing. I danced Charles Jude’s Swan Lake in Bordeaux and Anna Marie Homes’ Swan Lake in Oslo, and no one would tell me which one I was supposed to dance. It was scary.
However, now I have exam nightmares – the clock moves at super-speed, and I don’t even have time to write my name on the paper. Our subconscious does such strange things sometimes, right?
MCL: Totally! Your 2nd career choice was rather a given option you dreamt of. You did not need to go through the whole ‘what to do next’ period. Yet, did you feel that you needed to redefine or re-identify yourself?
CW: You are right. I feel very fortunate that I always knew exactly what I wanted to do, however, I must admit that it was difficult at first, even like this. It actually took about a year after I retired to accept fully that I had left ballet behind me, so it took the time to be 100% excited about becoming a doctor. The thing that helped me the most was my volunteering at Mount Sinai and Elmhurst Hospitals. My weekly interactions with patients and this first-hand experience that gave me a look into the medical profession helped me always to remember my goal.
MCL: Even if it was given for you, choosing to be a doctor as your 2nd career isn’t something that I could consider as a usual choice. While dance requires us to work with our bodies, being a doctor requires a whole different set of skills. What do you think, is your past an advantage or a disadvantage now?
CW: Oh… I definitely think it is an advantage. Columbia University loves taking ballet dancers into its program because they know how dedicated we are to our work. We are perfectionists, so we tend to give 110% all the time, and that is what you need in an institution, especially if they’re as demanding and competitive as Columbia. I also think that ballet dancers tend to develop a good understanding of the body. I hope that my knowledge of anatomy will be a huge asset to me in the future and that I can use my experience from ballet to help dancers who need treatment for their injuries.
MCL: So you do feel the drive to work with dancers later on?
CW: I would love to use my knowledge and experience in ballet to help other dancers with injuries. It was one of the main pushes for me to study medicine because it would always break my heart to see someone suffer an injury and not be able to dance anymore.
MCL: Now, studying to be a doctor and looking back to dancers, do you think dancers, in general, are healthy?
CW: I actually do! In general, I would say that the majority of dancers are healthy, although, of course, there are exceptions, and many of us push through injuries when we should really take better care of ourselves. However, as I previously said, I volunteer in the Emergency Departments at Mount Sinai and Elmhurst Hospitals, seeing patients from every nationality and social level. I am often shocked by the lifestyles of some patients. It makes me incredibly sad when I see families who do not have the finances or awareness to take better care of themselves.
MCL: Did your body change as you stopped dancing?
CW: Yes. I actually think this was one of the most difficult things. Throughout my career I never dieted, I always just ate very healthily, and always the same amount. There were periods where I would work a lot and get very thin, and then periods when I was not so busy and would be a bit bigger. Transitioning from dancing all day everyday, to doing an hour and a half ballet class and some cardio at the gym meant that I did get heavier and more ‘woman-like’, and that was hard to accept. I think the key thing is to realise that this is normal, and it is ok – no one has to partner me anymore! (we laugh again e.d.)
MCL: How do you feel yourself being out there, in the normal life? Was it difficult to adjust to the new rhythm of life, to find new friends, or to talk about things that are off ballet?
CW: It is a strange feeling. I often feel a little separated from both worlds. My school/medical friends do not really understand the ballerina in me, and my ballet friends do not always understand the pre-med student in me. However, I need to admit that I feel very lucky to be able to understand what it is like in both of these worlds. I hope that this ability to understand situations and experiences from different perspectives will be a huge advantage when I interact with my future patients.
MCL: What do you miss the most from your previous life?
CW: Friendships. I feel extremely lucky to have had so many wonderful friends in the companies I worked for – it is difficult to find that same level of companionship and understanding in the non-ballet world.
MCL: What do you miss the least from it?
CW: Not being allowed to have a voice. Now people listen to what I have to say. I am allowed, even encouraged, to have an opinion!
MCL: Do you have any habits from your ballerina time that you just can’t get rid of?
CW: I still tend to crack everything.
MCL: What was the hardest in being a ballerina?
CW: Hopping on point! I have very arched feet, so it was scary!
MCL: What is the hardest in not being a ballerina?
CW: Not being active all day.
MCL: Looking at your old point shoes. And then looking at your thick medical textbooks. Would you change again? Was it worth it?
CW: I sometimes wonder about this. If I hadn’t suddenly decided to become a ballet dancer at fourteen, I would be a fully qualified doctor now. I wouldn’t be working up a six-figure debt and would probably have had a much easier life. But would I change it? No, not for the world. I loved my job – it was the reason I woke up every morning – there was not one moment when I wanted to do anything else. What do they say? “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all”. (Alfred Lord Tennyson – e.d.)
MCL: What would you advise to dancers who are thinking to change but can’t make the leap of faith?
CW: Bedford Booth, one of my good friends here at Columbia University, would say to me “end game Carrie, think end game”. The transition is hard, but when you are able to push through it, and you are set on your new path, the sense of accomplishment is just wonderful. I would advise them to find a way that helps them move forward. Some of my friends just stop. They do not want to take class anymore; they tell me that they are “just done”. I wasn’t “done”, but I also wanted to be a doctor. I want to help people, I am fascinated by science, and I love to learn, so I dealt with my transition by taking class every day, by keeping as active as I could, and holding onto the friendships from my ballet world that are so dear to me.