Conversations

A Dancer’s Perspective 

-By Bonnie Kim 

Bonnie Kim Headshot
Bonnie Kim by David Hou.

The only constant is change.

There are several variations on the wording of this phrase, but the sentiment remains the same. Be it our relationships, birth and death, where we live or what we do, buckle up because change is inevitable.

Though I began dancing quite late at age 14, I always knew I’d be a performer. 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. I was ambitious, diligent, competitive and, frankly, pretty good. A bonus was the reaction I’d get when I said, “I’m a dancer.” I suppose one doesn’t meet many dancers at the average hair appointment or teeth cleaning.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m a dancer.”

“Really?! Wow, that’s so cool!”

Since I never entertained any other career, it came as quite a shock when in my late 20s to early 30s, my overall passion for dance—with its daily training and physical maintenance, the kind of work I was engaged in (not to mention being perpetually broke)—began to wane. 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?

That was honestly how I felt at the time. It never occurred to me that all of the qualities that made me a successful dancer were the same qualities that would make me a successful candidate in any industry. How could I possibly have that kind of clarity, when thoughts of looking for a “regular” job or going back to school at my age were so insanely overwhelming? Super. On top of everything else, I’ll be the mature student sitting front and centre, asking too many irritating questions. “I can’t even type!” was all I could think. I actually went to the library and borrowed a “Typing for Dummies” book and re-taught myself junior-high basics – jjj space, fff space. I thought, “I may not know what I’m doing with my life, but dammit I’ll be able to type!”

Thankfully, I was a member of the Dancer Transition Resource Centre (DTRC), an organization that helps dancers bridge the gap between performing careers and their next careers—an organization that I reluctantly joined in my early 20s, when I couldn’t imagine ever needing it. There was also a new dance magazine called The Dance Current (TDC), and I decided to write about what I was going through. I couldn’t be the only dancer who has ever experienced this. Perhaps I could find some answers or help someone else find answers. It was my first published writing, but it wouldn’t be my last. Between the DTRC and TDC (in particular, founder Megan Andrews who has always been a champion of my writing), I would continue to find support, comfort, guidance, counselling, financial aid, grants for re-training, employment, networking opportunities, direction and purpose over the many years of my transition.

Years—that’s how long it took me. I started with a writing class here, a film technology course there, all the while maintaining a very active performing career. Because in spite of the initial panicked year of considering a transition, I wasn’t ready to leave dance just yet. It seems that with time and perspective, I was able to weed through the emotional stuff, and find some clarity and direction. Amazing how that happens. Thanks to grants from the DTRC I eventually landed in Ryerson University’s Magazine Publishing program. I graduated in just over a year, with a 3.95 GPA (darn that A-!).

By this point I was writing quite a bit for TDC and Eye Weekly, and was even published in Toronto Life magazine (that was kind of awesome!). And yes, I was still performing. In the back of my mind I was probably thinking I’d eventually end up writing full-time somewhere. But the changes kept on coming. I was asked by Dancemakers Artistic Director Serge Bennathan to be Rehearsal Director, and I stayed on when Michael Trent took the helm. That gig lasted 9 years.

It was in my first year at Dancemakers in 2003 that I officially performed for the last time. But honestly, there was nothing official about it. I just stopped performing. No fanfare, no parades. Since then, I’ve embraced the fact that I’ll likely be a dance professional forever, but with more self-awareness, better tools, and way more perspective, I move forward with the confidence to do things that work for me and my life, without apologies or excuses.

Bonnie and Randy Glynn, Noir Sisters 1991, lower resolution
Bonnie Kim and Randy Glynn, Noir Sisters (1991). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Even now, I’m experiencing a transition of sorts, helping to care for my dad following his devastating stroke four years ago. These “real life” events have a different kind of impact, but still cause me to reconsider, rearrange and rethink everything I do. He’s become a priority in my life, and that trickles down and affects all of the decisions I now make.

So, when I was asked to sit on a roundtable about the transition similarities between dancers and athletes, I was all-in. Not only do I feel like a transition veteran, but the correlation with high-performance athletes makes a lot of sense.

The first thing I noticed about my roundtable group was that, on average, the dancers were about 20 years older than the athletes. Curious, because in both careers we tend to start young and peak young, but dancers have relatively longer performing careers. Of course, this varies on a number of factors—type of sport, style of dance, the individual, etc.—but the Olympic-caliber amateur athlete, like the younger ones in my group, were in their 20s, retired from active competition and freshly graduated from university.

I admit I initially felt jealous of them. They’re so accomplished, yet still young enough that the prospect of a new career would seem less traumatic. But the more they shared their stories, the more I realized that fear, uncertainty and loss of identity are much the same at 20 as they are at 40. And the challenges dancers and athletes face when confronted with change and transition are also similar, particularly when trying to find another career that checks all the same boxes as the one we’re leaving behind. Yet another reason why we dancers are so lucky to have the DTRC addressing these needs (so forward-thinking of founder Joysanne Sidimus, back in 1985).

The issue that most resonated for me was how vital it is for our colleagues who have made successful transitions to other fields, to continue actively engaging with those coming behind them, through outreach, shadowing, internships, or simply a sit-down for coffee and sound advice. How awesome would it be, if we had “ambassadors” in numerous fields mentoring fellow former dancers and athletes—showing them the ropes, sharing their stories, and being a point of contact and support? Surely, there must be a formal, structured way for this to happen.

Perhaps these roundtables and the upcoming conference in November are a good start.

Bonnie Kim is a dance professional and freelance writer.