A box of tissues sits prominently on the coffee table at the Vancouver office of Canada's Dancer Transition Resource Centre. Andrea Gunnlaugson, the B.C. program officer, points to it and says that it's often in use when her members come to see her. She calls herself the "keeper of secrets."
A dance career offers little financial security. There are few workplace protections, no unions, and retirement looms when other careers are just getting started: most dancers retire from performing between the ages of 28 and 35.
All of that leads to a lot of tears when dancers wind up in Gunnlaugson's office.
"We're the safety place," she says. A professional dancer herself who retired from performing only a few years ago, Gunnlaugson knows first-hand the pressures facing working dancers. "As an actor you can age and work. With dance you trash your body to such an extent that eventually you do have to stop."
A quarter century of helping dancers
When the DTRC first opened its doors in 1985 it was meeting a need for dancers in Canada. After spending their youth and careers in the studio, retiring dancers were ill-prepared for finding and starting a new career. With low salaries and little time for outside education, retirement due to age or injury was a terrifying prospect.
As the organization celebrates its 25th year of helping dancers "transition" into new careers it remains one of the few safety nets for dancers in Canada, offering scholarships and counseling for dancers looking to re-train or retire.
"Your whole identity is wrapped up in this work. It's not just what you do, it's who you are," says Gunnlaugson. "In what other career do you worry that if you take a few weeks off you may not be able to come back?"
Dancer Tiffany Bilodeau knows that pressure. "In the ballet world there's this saying," she says. "'Take one day off, you notice. Take two days off, your colleagues notice. Take three days off and the audience notices.'"
When Bilodeau was 14 years old she spent the summer at ballet school in Banff. At the end of the summer she told her parents in Fort St. John that she wasn't coming home -- she was going to continue at ballet school. She attended the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and soon afterward joined Ballet Kelowna, leaving the company after six years. Now, at age 26, she's considered a mid-career dancer. She's now living in Vancouver and has been performing, but dance contracts and company positions are thin on the ground. She teaches dance and Pilates, and works at Lululemon to make ends meet.
Landing a job in a ballet company isn't easy and for dancers of other styles like contemporary or hip-hop there are no full-time companies in B.C. Those dancers work independently, stringing together contracts. For most, dance isn't their only job.
"It's really hard. And it's tough to keep training because you're working. You dance whenever you can," says Bilodeau. "When people ask, 'Are you still dancing?' It's the worst question to answer in the world. Am I still a dancer or am I not?"
That question of identity once kept dancers from speaking openly about their membership with the DTRC, says Gunnlaugson, because dancers didn't want others to know they were considering quitting.
As the dance world changes and dancers increasingly become more like freelancers, the idea of pursuing other skills is starting to become less taboo, and more necessity.
In light of that, the DTRC offers more than just retirement help now. It holds workshops for aspiring professional dancers and offers dancers support in finding a parallel career that allows them to keep dancing.
In terms of new careers, the options are limitless. The over 10,000 dancers that have benefitted from the DTRC have gone on to everything from accounting to law to carpentry. The DTRC offers skills grants of $1,500, and for a dancer wanting to permanently retire from performing they offer $18,000 -- their largest grant.
"The DTRC has been really great helping me find interests outside dancing, giving me options, steering me towards grants, courses and getting me in touch with people going through the same thing," says Bilodeau, who completed her Pilates training through a skills grant.
Bilodeau says she's not ready to give up dancing yet, but she's planning to use the DTRC's support to become a physiotherapist when she is ready to retire. "I'm planning ahead. Because I know there's an end point to dance and it's going to come a lot sooner than I want."
The DTRC has done a lot to offer dancers a safety net, but a dance career is still a precarious proposition. Gunnlaugson says there's still a lot to do to raise professional standards in the dance world. Certain groups like the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists have created a standard contract that directors and choreographers should follow, but often don't.
"People make many exceptions in the dance world," says Gunnlaugson. "The fear is if you stand up and complain you have the risk of losing your job. People are so desperate for the work, there's always someone else willing to take the pay cut, or dance on concrete without knee-pads," she says. There continues to be no way to enforce standards of pay or working conditions for dancers, achieving that might require another 25 years.
For their anniversary the DTRC is hosting a gala fundraiser of B.C. dance. "Choreographing Change" is at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, Dec. 1 at 8:00 p.m. Performers include dancers from Ballet BC and So You Think You Can Dance Canada. Tickets are $75 and can be found at Ticketstonight.ca or by calling 604-899-0755.