A dancer dies twice. Once when they stop dancing
Famous dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said, “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”
On average, only 10% of dancers who actively pursue a career in dance becomes professional. While touring the world and dancing in some of the most beautiful theatres are some of the highlights of the profession, maintaining the perfect body, technique and artistry while avoiding injuries that can put an end to the career, are the challenges.
Many dancers find themselves unprepared to shift their career
On average, a dancer’s performance career tends to end around the age of 35, and one of the most significant issues is that many dancers find themselves unprepared to shift their career.
According to a study published in 2004, titled Making Changes, Facilitating the Transition of Dancers to Post-Performance Careers, “The great majority of current dancers claim to be aware of the challenges that a career transition will pose (98%, 86% and 93% in the U.S., Switzerland and Australia, respectively). Many former dancers concede that they are ill-prepared for this process.” The dancers surveyed mentioned that one of the biggest challenges for their career transition is represented by inadequate financial resources available for further training.
There are multiple careers that a dancer can undertake when leaving the stage. One of the most common is to become a dance teacher.
Donna Schoenherr career change from dancer to dance teacher
Today we meet Donna Schoenherr, Founder and Director of Ballet4life, an organisation that offers vocational dance education for adults. She is also the founder of Move into Wellbeing, a charitable organisation that provides dance and exercise classes for adults living with Parkinson’s and other mobility restrictions. From her early studies in dance in New York City to life as a dancer, she tells the story of her career change, from dancer to dance teacher and entrepreneur.
Dance scholarship in New York
What is your educational background?
I attended a private Catholic grammar school and then a public secondary school due to my dance studies. My graduation happened one-year early so I could take up my dance scholarship offers in NYC. I did modules with universities long distance. My majors were Maths, French, English. I also attended the Enid Knapp Botsford School of Dance in Rochester, NY, under scholarship for a ten-year comprehensive dance, theatre, dance history, and anatomy studies.
Being around many languages is enriching and opens the mind
How many languages do you speak?
I studied French intensively in secondary school, but later I lost my grasp on that. French is the language of ballet, and I wanted to live in Paris.
I learned basic Spanish in NYC through friends and work, and I studied it in a course in Los Angeles as well.
My husband is originally from Germany, so I learned German as well, and now, after only 20+ years, I have basic fluency. It was the respectful thing to do; try to learn his native language.
I would like to get my Spanish and French polished and practised again. Spanish and Italian are my favourite sounding languages and appeal to me. I pretended to speak Norwegian when I spent a summer there, and sometimes I think I understand Dutch because of the German words interspersed. I wish I could say that I am multi-lingual, but that would be a lie. Being around many languages is enriching and opens the mind.
What difference has the knowledge of these languages made in your life?
I think my skill level/command is not high enough to answer this, but I can say that having to try to express myself in a language other than my mother tongue is a good thing. Having to think, listen and use words and sentences differently, it is good for the brain and for keeping open-minded and less judgemental.
Which job did you want to do when you were a child? Did you do it?
I wanted to be a professional dancer, an actress, an artist, a journalist/reporter/writer. And yes, I did!
When did you decide that you wanted to be a dancer?
My mother enrolled me in Ballet Classes at a prestigious school with an International Staff of Teachers and Guest Artists run by a visionary woman. I was really fortunate. My mother just did it because ballet was known to be good for poise, expression, grace, strength; you know, a nice thing to practice! I also took riding lessons, swimming and diving lessons, and clarinet lessons. (I detested the clarinet and wished I could have learned the piano!) When I was 11, I declared to my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in ballet/dance to which they were pretty surprised!
First audition and demoralising “cattle calls”
Do you remember your first audition? What was the biggest challenge?
Well, funny story. I auditioned as a very young dancer for a company I had already danced with at age ten in their Nutcracker. Festival Ballet of New York directed by the famous English dancer, teacher, producer Miss Kathleen Crofton, thought it would be a good learning experience for me to do a proper company audition, which I did. I think I must have been around 13 or 14. It was both horrifying and exciting.
Later in NYC, I went to “cattle calls” for say one job with hundreds of people auditioning. There is first a “body cut”, and that is very demoralising. You are simply too tall, too this, too that! One audition Patricia Neary, then director of Zurich Ballet, had us point our foot in a battement tendu ( in which one leg is extended until the point of the stretched foot barely touches the ground) and cut about 250 dancers. Over the years, I had become more confident, and I learnt to control my emotional reactions. I also developed an understanding that auditions are complex, and many factors go into the decisions made.
Joining Cleveland Ballet
How and when did you start your career as a dancer?
I would say having my first contract with the Festival Ballet of N.Y. was how and when I truly started. Later on, after freelancing for a few years, I auditioned for and was luckily accepted to join the brilliant company Cleveland Ballet.
Can you tell us how life as a dancer was at Cleveland Ballet?
It was an inspiring, enriching, stimulating experience. We had so many excellent dancers in the company, and we learned and performed famous pieces and new pieces. The audiences loved us, and we even had a residency in San Jose, where we were wined and dined by the Silicon Valley Millionaires!
What were the pro’s and the cons of life as a dancer at Cleveland Ballet?
I was a perfect fit for the company and its varied repertoire, and I had many close friends there. My life was good. We were well paid; we worked very hard, but we were doing what we loved, and we were trained to do. I loved my job, the training, the learning, the performing, the community. The cons were injuries, fatigue, cold harsh winters, long periods of lay off when we did not get paid and had to freelance, doing hundreds of Nutcrackers, and the person who was directing!
Deciding to leave because of significant conflict
How long did you dance for the Cleveland Ballet, and why did you decide to leave?
I was with Cleveland Ballet in Cleveland, Ohio, USA for four years then I left because I had significant conflict with one of the two directors. The one director who had mentored and nurtured me left the company to work for Dance USA and the Limón Dance Company in NYC. The one who remained disliked me and I had trouble with his manner, his ego, and his negative behaviour. I wanted to have my entire career there and become a Principal Dancer and then after retiring, to become a company teacher and coach.
Do you have any funny stories to tell about your experience as a dancer at Cleveland Ballet?
I have so many anecdotes, hard to choose one! Ironically, I was often sent to the interviews with tv and newspapers, but I was hardly ever getting promotions or good roles. I guess it was because I could speak well enough and not come off as a “dumb dancer!”
Moving to Germany
Where did you go and what did you do after leaving the Cleveland Ballet?
I went to Germany because my best friend lived and worked there in a theatre as a dancer. Her home became a base for me to do training and auditions. Through friends, we heard of an opening in a small company in Giessen, Germany. The director was American, from Cleveland and had great respect for dancers from Cleveland Ballet. He was also noted for being an innovative choreographer. I went and saw one of his productions, and I was impressed. He later offered me a job. I did a tricky official audition for the heads of the theatre department. The Intendant wanted German or European dancers, not more Americans and he did not really like me, but I got the job regardless!
Exploring the world
I imagine that during your life as a dancer, you had the opportunity to travel the globe. Did you get a different perspective of the world?
Yes, I toured extensively with the Michael Mao Dance Company to Europe and Mexico as participants of the prestigious Cervantes Festival. I danced in Germany for the company mentioned above for one year. Living abroad and touring was very exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting people from other countries, hearing different languages, eating different foods, learning from others, seeing different beautiful theatres, feeling how different audiences reacted to our performances, and if we had time visiting museums, galleries, art centres. It helped to keep broadening my mind and increase awareness.
The transferable skills I used to transition from dancer to dance teacher
What transferable skills have you learned from your profession as a dancer that have been useful during your career change from dancer to dance teacher?
Countless ones! They include: Teamwork, following instructions, working hard, cooperation, patience, being a doer, thinking on my feet, being alert and ready, learning from everyone around me from colleagues to my boss, costume designer, guest artists, anyone and everyone. I learned a great deal about production, teaching, rehearsing, directing, coaching; and also, technique, performance skills, responsibility, self- discipline, routine, planning, analysing, memorisation, recall of info and history of arts. All these skills have helped me to transition from dancer to dance teacher.
I was a born teacher, but I resented this because I wanted to perform
When and how did you start to think about transitioning from dancer to dance teacher?
I was actually formally trained at the school in Rochester in teaching skills. It was part of our education. The dance luminary Jurgen Schneider, our master teacher and also a Ballet Master at American Ballet Theatre, told me I was a born teacher. I resented this because I wanted to perform first, then teach. He taught me a lot and praised my skills, but I was stubborn and did not want only to teach. He tried to train me and take me under his wing, but I felt too young, and there was too much dancing to do on stage first! I also thought many teachers I had seen were bitter ex-dancers or bitter dance lovers who never got to perform, and I did not want o become like that!
I always taught on the side at my school, in my neighbourhood to local children, at my grammar school, and covering in NYC at dance studios and at David Howard’s Dance Centre. It was when I ruined my knee and had to stop performing and being a full-time performing dancer that I turned to being the teacher I was meant to be. My teaching experience progressed at Michael Mao’s Company, where I also assisted him as a Rehearsal Director and at the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company where I then also worked as a Rehearsal Director. I started guest teaching around the world in different schools, summer programmes, and at my friends’ company Minnesota Ballet for many years. I also taught for many different international Dance Companies. It was not a hard transition at all. In fact, it felt rewarding and enriching.
Moving to London and becoming a mother
When and how did you transition from dancer to dance teacher?
I moved to London with my husband. I was still travelling internationally, teaching and choreographing but that was the time when I went from being a dancer to dance teacher. We wanted to have a child, so I thought I should start to stay in one place for a change! I got an excellent job teaching for Millennium Dance 2000 now titled Millennium Performing Arts. I taught there for nearly three years, and I also guest taught and covered at different places.
Later, when I became a mother I realised that I wanted a life in which I would be present in the raising of our son. I took some time to research what was missing in London, and that appeared to be a professional, comprehensive dance organisation offering top quality open ballet classes for adult learners.
A friend who worked for Rambert Dance Company got me the chance to hire the studio there on Mondays, and I launched my first classes in January 2004. I would walk our son to nursery, got on my bike and cycled to RDC, teach, cycle back to nursery and collect him. It was healthy for him to learn and to play and interact with others, and I so enjoyed my freedom and returning to the studio! I started Ballet4life because I wanted to be my own boss, I wanted to work locally and not waste hours sitting on a train, I wanted to spend time with my son, I wanted to provide dance tuition of a high quality to adult learners
The highlights of a life as an entrepreneur in the dance sector
What are the highlights of your job?
Highlights are countless! They include:
- Being involved in dance every day
- Being my own boss
- The joy of meeting wonderful people and forming friendships
- Giving something of quality and goodness to people for their wellbeing,
- Seeing people transforming, becoming healthier and happier and growing in confidence
- Seeing that we created a whole community that interacts and supports and cares for each other
- Providing employment to freelance teachers
- Seeing my teachers grow and change over the years as I provide them with experiences, feedback, and opportunities.
- Showcase performances when we share our work with the greater public, and we raise funds for the charity.
- Interacting with the local community as well as the bigger dance community. The local press is very supportive, and when they print press releases or share a Tweet, this makes a big difference.
- The interaction of Ballet4life clients who volunteer for the charity Move into Wellbeing® and how these two specialised dance-based organisations give so much to people and provide lifelines. This brings me great joy and satisfaction.
- Other highlights include growth and expansion, being role models for others, bring dance for adults to a much higher standard and awareness, and being recognised for my work and commitment
- And the latest, a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, developing the online dance programme. This meant being a pioneer and experimenting and opening up doors that were closed.
Long hard hours of work behind the scenes
What about the low lights?
- Long hard hours of work behind the scenes
- Problems with venues, losing good teachers due to relocation, losing beloved clients through relocation or other, dealing with any clients’ bad news such as injury, loss, unemployment, life struggles, and having to drop a class.
- Having ideas, I originated to be used by others without credit.
- Having lots of rejection or disbelief over the years from people in the industry.
My mission is to provide high-quality dance education for adult learners
In this amazing journey that has been your career, what do you feel is your mission today?
My mission is to provide professional standard classes, masterclasses, workshops and performance opportunities to adult learners. To carry on with integrity, honesty, to always offer concession rates, and sponsorship to those in need, to continue to develop and diversify as I feel is wise and logical. Bringing dance to all.
My daily life
What is your typical day?
I wake up between 6-6.45am, if it was during our son’s academic year, I do a bit of Ballet4 admin, and social media first then make sure he is awake and getting ready for school. I then do some housework, organisation, then more Ballet4Life and Move into Wellbeing admin tasks, emails, website, and all the social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
If it is when we were in the studios, I would then go to the studios for classes, to oversee, teach, take a class, watch a class, etc. Sometimes I meet with the teachers or clients after classes for an informal meeting. Then back home and more admin and prepping for supper and doing chores. I try to wrap up the desk work around 6 pm or so, but that fluctuates as needed.
For the online programme launch and development, I was working from 7 am- till past 7 pm for a few months. Now things are balancing, and I can try to take off part of a Friday and /or Sunday.
I also liaise with my teachers, with two part-time admin assistants, and with the board of trustees for Move into Wellbeing, and do a lot of networking, grant applications and reports, and planning both B4l and MiW.
Then, later on, I usually watch something on the TV with my husband and after trying to do an evening stretching session, fall blissfully asleep.
If I can squeeze it in, I do some creating with my painting, collages, and photography and or sit for a break in our garden.
Plans for the future
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I would like a younger, passionate dance educator to become the director and for me to step down from this very demanding role. I would like to be a consultant and oversee but not run everything daily. Making time for more creative projects and development such a my artwork, and my choreography, would be ideal. I love my life and all aspects, but I think it is wise to plan to have less hard work and more personal creative time and time with my husband. I enjoy my freedom, and since I am lucky to be self-disciplined, I can work very hard and then take time off to daydream or photograph or paint or give a friend a call.
Wanting to mentoring younger teachers and directors
What would be your ideal job?
I guess an ideal job would be to be selling my art, to be the Director Emeritus of Ballet4Life and to mentor younger teachers and directors. I would love to create and spearhead a teacher training programme too! So, I would like to remain involved in Ballet4Life and to have more time for art and exploration. Have time perhaps to collaborate with other people I respect and enjoy working with. I would also like to have a small dance company for occasional projects and performances which would fundraise for Move into Wellbeing, and/or found an Arts Centre for dance, music, theatre, teaching, learning. Not too much to ask for, eh?
Changing your career from dancer to dance teacher has been a positive experience for you. What are the positive aspects of changing career?
Changing career is a good thing because it can be a way to learn new skills, to develop in a way that you had not planned, bring you to new pathways and new people, bring new challenges, can re-inspire, refresh, and reawaken and sort of shake things up a bit!
There is always another way to get to a destination
Any final message you would like to share with our readers, something that you have learned during your transition from dancer to dance teacher?
I would like to convey that if you believe in something and you do it with integrity and clarity, then it can be possible. Try not to let small defeats bring you down as there is always another way to get to a destination just like when driving and you get lost, and you find your destination using a different route. Trust your instincts and be ready to devote and commit. Be clear about what you want. Lastly, I believe that you can learn from any experience you have, whether a pleasant one or a negative one. You gain new skills that will come in handy at another junction in your life!
If you enjoyed reading about Donna’s career transition from dancer to dance teacher discover more about her work.
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