Shae Larsen and Scott Galbraith’s neat, two-bedroom house in Maylands looks like any young couple’s home – sparsely decorated, a pile of awaiting dishes, an excited chocolate Labrador puppy scratching at the door. Photo frames are propped up against the living room walls, still waiting to be hung. But there are tell-tale signs that two dancers live in this house. The photo frames are dance portraits or captured shots from performances. Running shoes line the rack at the door and leggings, shorts and trackpants hang on the clothes dryer. A pair of well-worn ballet shoes lie carelessly on the desk next to a pile of bills. An exercise ball sits in place of an armchair and a physiotherapy foam roller is perched next to the television. A heat pack and a nearly empty box of band-aids are scattered across the coffee table.
They are a typical dancer couple.
Except Larsen is no longer a dancer. A knee injury two years ago cut Larsen’s career abruptly short.
“You rely on your body, so if you don’t have your body, you don’t have much,” she says.
For many dancers, Larsen’s experience is nothing unusual. The risk of injury, early retirement or never even making back the money spent on years of intensive training are just part of the process of becoming a professional dancer. It is undoubtedly tough, not just on a dancer’s body but also on their mind, relationships and sense of identity. However, the pure passion and love for the art form can outweigh the negatives and many have very successful careers. Despite the sacrifices made, intensity of the workload and time commitments and mental strain dancers face in their career progression, for many the dream is still too powerful to ignore.
“You spend the majority of your life at work so why would you be doing something you don’t absolutely love?” asks 21-year-old Melbourne-based dancer and choreographer, Kayla Douglas. “I couldn’t imagine my life without dance so naturally I pursued it to become my life.”
Dancers like Larsen, Galbraith and Douglas epitomise the desire of today’s young people to seek careers that are purposeful and fulfilling, rather than ones that provide security and stability. According to a Deloitte survey in 2016, Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 1994) and Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2012) have a greater balance between work and life and boundaries between the two are becoming increasingly blurred. These generations define career success in terms of aspects such as job satisfaction, being in a values-driven workspace and feeling in control of their career, rather than more tangible elements such as promotions, positions or salary.
“The biggest thing to stress is that this career is such a lifestyle choice. It’s about acknowledging that if you decide to do this, it is your life.”
Dance as a professional career path in Australia was significantly enhanced during the 1970s and 1980s when formal training programs were established and tertiary-level dance courses were introduced. The rise of state and smaller companies during the same time diversified the kind of dance offered to the Australian public. As stated by Ausdance – Australia’s peak body for dance education and advocacy – there are now more than 60 dance companies and 200 choreographers in Australia.
According to a 2016 report from the Queensland University of Technology, dancers’ professional performing careers are extremely short, lasting just 10 to 15 years with the vast majority retiring before the age of 40. Considering the rigorous training required, it is also a career that is relatively poorly paid. A corps de ballet dancer with The Australian Ballet – a dancer in the body of the cast – makes $54,000 a year. In comparison, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics this year, the average weekly earnings of a full-time adult equate to an $82,472 annual salary. However, many dancers are paid per contract or per show with contracts in ballet often lasting a year. But in contemporary dance, contracts can be just three months long. Dancers often need to work other jobs despite dedicating an extensive amount of time to their craft. Social lives disintegrate, as do their bodies.
Douglas wakes at 5am every morning, after falling into bed around midnight the night before. While she always wakes up on the first ring of her alarm, every few days she thinks “I don’t want to do this”. “This” being the 19-hour day of a working dancer.
As an independent artist and dancer at Transit Dance and Tr.IPP in Melbourne, Douglas’s life is one that would quickly push many to the point of exhaustion and think about doing something, anything, else. Yet rehearsals, classes, show preparation, meetings for grants, promotion and fitness training are just part of a dancer’s career. While the demands of dance become simply part of the job, Douglas is still adamant the sacrifices made are substantial and far-reaching.
“I moved away from home at 17, which is common,” she says. “Having a somewhat normal life and my social life have suffered significantly. There’s so many people I hardly get to see and I miss the opportunity to meet new people. The biggest thing to stress is that this career is such a lifestyle choice. It’s about acknowledging that if you decide to do this, it is your life.”
The hard work seems never-ending as Douglas says being business savvy and knowing how to sell herself is just as vital as dancing.
“There’s a lot that goes into it that doesn’t include performing and you need to be good at the business side of it to have a viable career,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t realise you have to be very intelligent to pursue a dance career. Until recently, even I had no idea how true that was.”
Even dressed in jeans and a striped t-shirt, 21-year-old William Halton’s ballet figure is obvious. Lean yet muscular, tall and elegant. He walks through his kitchen with envious posture and grace. Despite not starting ballet until his early teens – a late start in the dance domain – Halton quickly discovered his enthusiasm for the art form. Nevertheless, having auditioned throughout Europe and worked with West Australian Ballet, he says the perfectionist art of ballet can be as taxing mentally as it is physically, and can easily become all-consuming.
“You become very hard on yourself and you get in your own head about things,” he says. “You start thinking ‘everything is wrong, everything is bad, everything could be better’. I’ve seen people who get totally obsessed and stuck in the ballet world to the point where it is just not good for them.
“I think dance definitely takes over your life, but personally when I come home, I try and relax and take my mind off work, ballet and training. I need to go out and do other things and see people who aren’t dancers. That’s really important to me.”
The unfavourable hours and negative headspaces can also have a significant impact on dancers’ relationships. It was only two months ago Galbraith, 23 – who is currently balancing work with four different companies – told Larsen: “I don’t know what I would do if I was dating someone who didn’t dance.” Larsen believes having been a dancer herself helps her understand what Galbraith is going through. But from clashing schedules and limited spare time to intimate performances with others and emotional strain, the cost on their relationship, at times, is still high.
“Earlier this year, Scott was doing quite a dark work and exploring negative emotions and it was hard for him to brush that off when he got home,” Larsen says. “He was also doing these really graphic scenes with another girl and obviously, I wasn’t thrilled,” she laughs. “But I understand that’s just part of his work. I also understand the time commitments and him putting in so much and getting very little back because I know that needs to happen.”
The most common challenge faced, however? Injury. It is one of the biggest risks dancers face in their careers and is the primary reason for involuntary retirement, according to the QUT report. While the threat of injury is constantly sitting under the surface, for some dancers it can tear down their career early. When Larsen’s knee injury prevented her from dancing, it wasn’t just her career in question, it was her sense of identity. “When your whole life is tied to something then that thing stops, what do you do?” she asks.
Larsen met Galbraith while also studying at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, after training seven days a week during high school. She loves, loved – she quickly corrects herself – the discipline of dance, being aware of how the mind and body work together and the adrenaline of performing. She took pride in telling people she was a dancer and is embarrassed she can no longer. The QUT report highlights how tightly interwoven a dancer’s individual identity is with their identity as a dancer. It becomes a fundamental part of them and, considering the unrelenting immersion in dance, that comes as no surprise.
“When I stopped dancing, a lot of people said ‘why don’t you teach dance?’ but for me that was just hanging the carrot in front of the donkey’s face – I couldn’t do it but I would be constantly surrounded by it,” Larsen says, smiling sadly. “I still feel the need to explain to people why I stopped dancing or to say I’m an ex-dancer. It’s this weird floating or suppressed part of my identity. Sometimes I’ll hear something and know how I would move but I can’t do it anymore.” Larsen glances down and her toes are pointed as they stretch out on the chair in front of her. “See?” she laughs. “As a dancer, your identity is very intrinsically tied to what you do.”
“You do it because you love it. It’s not a feasible career if you don’t.”
If dancers know the arduous challenges inevitably facing them, why pursue a career that gives so little back? They agree the pure love and passion for dance outweighs every sacrifice and hardship. “I just love it so much that I don’t even know how to describe the feeling,” Douglas says. “You do it because you love it. It’s not a feasible career if you don’t.”
For Galbraith, the “this is why I do it” moment comes every time he steps out onstage. “When you’re performing, you do it out of love and there is such satisfaction to perform to an audience,” he says. “I think a lot of hours get put in establishing your career with not a lot of reward but when you find your first job or opportunity it makes it all worth it. But you can’t do it half-heartedly.”
In his time as Dean of the Arts at John Curtin College of the Arts, Travis Vladich has seen just how vital this passion is in students and aspiring dancers. “Artists are in the field for the satisfaction and energy that it gives,” he says. “If you’re stale, you’re not going to be your best performer. There’s passion in what they do and that passion is what makes them get up in the morning.”
“We are more aware of ourselves as emotional beings and how important our happiness is.”
The unique qualities of a dance career – short, poorly paid yet one individuals are extremely passionate about – epitomises younger generations’ attitudes to careers and what that word means. A dancer is often planning their second career early on in their first and the length of their career may only be as long as the training itself to get there. Some dancers – like Galbraith, Douglas and Halton – are sure in their desire to stay involved in the industry at the end of their performing careers. Others, however, find their way into completely unrelated fields, like Larsen and her recent move into midwifery.
“I think young people are being empowered to make their own decisions,” says Vladich. “We can be naïve here in Perth and we get a bit isolated but kids today are realising what’s out there and what they can do. It’s an important thing to constantly reinvent yourself because to be a happy person at work you need to be engaged and being stagnant doesn’t hold that engagement.”
A 2016 Gallup report, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, found those born between 1980 and 1996 were the most open to different job opportunities and 21 per cent said they had left their job in the previous year to pursue something else. After all, the contemporary careerist is one who is focused on a career that is fulfilling and meaningful and will shop around for jobs until that sense of purpose is found.
“We are more inclined to pursue something that makes us happy because that is more of our generation’s concern than money,” Douglas says. “We are more aware of ourselves as emotional beings and how important our happiness is.”
Larsen and Galbraith’s house may always be a sign of the dancers they were, are or aspire to be. It may stay like that long after their careers, in whatever shape or form, are over. Dance is an integral part of their identities. It may mean they hardly see each other, despite living together. It may mean eating a meal together is a rare occurrence. It may mean finances will be low and tensions high. But the house will be filled with two motivated and passionate people.
The sacrifices, challenges and hard work involved in pursuing a dance career and making it successful still prompt the question of why dancers follow this path, but as Galbraith says so simply, as if it is obvious: “It doesn’t become work because you just love it so much.”