When Debra Weiss says she's “always had that entrepreneurial spirit," she isn't kidding: she put on her first dance show when she was a precocious 6-year-old.
Though not every dancer begins thinking about the business that early, dance is an overwhelmingly youth-oriented profession. According to a study done by the aDvANCE Project, the average retirement age of a professional dancer is 41. But because of injury and physical strain, a lot of dancers retire from the stage even earlier — many of them before the age of 30. Being a professional dancer requires a demanding training schedule and a singular focus, so very few dancers have time to think about backup career plans.
Weiss was one of the lucky few who found the time to complete a bachelor's degree while dancing professionally. She danced in a number of shows and companies before starting the Debra Weiss Dance Company in 1982. Always interested in using the arts as a means to give back, Weiss ran a performing arts program for at-risk youth in Nyack, N.Y., from 1993 to 2004. She had always kept herself busy with a number of projects, but at age 50, she found herself at a crossroads in her career.
That's when Weiss visited Career Transitions for Dancers, a nonprofit focused on helping dancers acquire the skills and guidance needed to move on to new professions. "Dancers tend to be very disciplined," says Nancy MacMillion, a board member at the organization. Career Transitions for Dancers, which was established in 1985 and has offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, helps performers assess their interests and apply that characteristic discipline toward their next acts.
Transitioning dancers can apply for the organization's scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate study, or they can submit a business plan and apply for an entrepreneurial grant. The organization offers free career counseling, job search guidance and overall moral support. It also plays host to frequent "Career Conversations" on a variety of topics, such as "How to Find Work on the Internet" or "The Emotional Side of Change." All of the services are free.
Weiss is grateful for the support she received from the organization. "There's nothing like it," she says. "They've helped so many people." She went through a career counseling program at the New York office, and it helped her recognize her passions, which included lifelong interests in yoga, meditation and healthy living.
By the end of Weiss's 10-month counseling program, she decided to go back to school. She initially thought she'd just get her master's, but four and a half years later she was graduating from Columbia University with a doctorate in health education.
"Most dancers push their bodies to an extreme," she says. "So I realized I wanted to help people learn how to live healthier."
Today Weiss, 56, is an adjunct assistant professor at the City University of New York, teaching both health education and English. She's always loved poetry, and teaching English has helped her see a connection between literature and dance. "The arts can all be healing," she says.
Weiss' company is also involved with Let's Dance!, a program that stages dance and drumming performances for hospital patients. "As dancers, we entertain people, but I think there should always be an element of giving back," she says.
Weiss continues to look ahead, and she says her ultimate goal is to open a healing arts center. And when she's ready to take that leap, Career Transitions for Dancers will be there to help her; their former clients can return for guidance whenever they'd like.
Career Transitions for Dancers is now focusing on outreach programs at dance schools, hoping to get dancers thinking about their second acts even earlier in their careers.
The organization continues to promote the idea that dancers don't stop being dancers when they move on to other professions. "I'll always continue to dance," Weiss says. "But you have to realize that time marches on."
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