The applause echoes in your ears as you take what you know will be your final bow onstage. The auditorium is packed to the brim with the patrons, donors, and friends who have supported your years of dance. Coworkers come in from backstage, flowers are tossed onto an ever-growing pile in front of you, and your heart is full as you revel in the affirmation that you made ballet come alive in your community. 

But before you know it, the applause fades, the house lights go dim, and the rush of feelings ebb. And it’s over. The career you threw every moment of your life into since you were a child and the passion that made you push your body ever further to athletic and artistic prowess has concluded. You are a ballet retiree. You’re likely in your late 20s or mid 30s, and your entire professional history means next to nothing to the rest of the world. The college you’ve applied to doesn’t count 32 fouettes as a form of credit, and the interviewer at the corporate job hasn’t even seen Swan Lake, much less respects your career-defining role in the production. You’re in a whole new world… so where do you go now? 

This transition from ballet to the “normal world” is often a painful experience for a dancer. Reevaluating their core identity and transforming their strongest relationships can be challenging, especially when entering a new workspace they might not be fully prepared for. Going back to school for the necessary education may also be financially impossible.

While traditional dancer support ends the moment they step off the stage for the last time, there is an organization that cares deeply about the continued success and well-being of dancers in all their phases of life — The Encore Fund

The Encore Fund is a fiscally sponsored nonprofit dedicated to helping professional dancers transition from their current careers as artists into higher education opportunities, devoted to advancing resources for dancers as they move away from their dance careers into their next steps. 

The Encore Fund was envisioned and brought to life by Shelby Whallon, who danced with Los Angeles Ballet. When asked about her Encore Fund origin story, she took us back to her own dancing journey.

Beau Campbell Photography

“I started dancing full-time with Los Angeles Ballet in the fall of 2016, and enrolled in community college classes in the evening after my rehearsal days. When the pandemic shuttered the performing arts, I, like many of my friends and colleagues, found myself in an incredibly precarious situation. We had no idea when (or if) the performing arts were set to resume in person, or if the world would look the same as when we last were up on stage. I was given the opportunity to apply to an Ivy League school through my community college, and I approached it with a ‘just for fun’ kind of attitude at the time, figuring that I would at the very least get interview practice and letters of recommendation together for my real leap into full-time higher education after my dance career, whenever that was. I was unexpectedly accepted into the program, and was so delighted to have what felt like a hopeful opportunity from the pandemic. That feeling soured quickly when I was asked to take out over a quarter of a million dollars in personal student loan debt for the three years I would need to graduate the program. I know this is a common occurrence; we can talk about the high costs of education in the US all day long, along with how little performing artists make for their dedication to their work, but I thought that because of these two common factors that there had to be some form of help out there for performing artists transitioning away from the stage. 

 At the time, there was only one resource dedicated to performing artists in my situation, and I just thought – that’s not enough. I ended up declining the offer and danced happily for two additional seasons with Los Angeles Ballet after Covid restrictions were lifted. While dancing, I continued to push The Encore Fund’s mission forward, the cause growing ever more personal as my own transition felt like it was growing closer. I am now a full-time undergraduate student at UCLA, continuing to gain experience in nonprofit management through the Luskin School of Public Affairs. What started as an observation of what needed to change has blossomed into a community of support for professional dancers in a whole new way.” 

 Since its founding in 2021, The Encore Fund has now provided scholarships to four ballet dancers, with a fifth already selected and ready to be announced on the first of June.

Beau Campbell Photography

One of these dancers is Marianne Bassing, a former artist with the Estonian National Ballet. When asked why investing in her education was of value, she said, “From a young age we are told a breadth of knowledge is unnecessary, as it is more important to be single focused. But I wholeheartedly disagree. It wasn’t until I started engaging in my education and learning about the world outside of dance that I felt my performances come to life. The more we know, the more we have to give. By investing in education The Encore Fund is showing performers that education is important, and can make a positive impact on our lives.” 

Marianne is now pursuing a Masters of Arts in Psychology in Education: General Psychology, at Teacher’s College, Columbia with the ultimate goal of helping at-risk youth live more resilient lives.

Another scholarship recipient, Desean Taber, a former artist with Boston Ballet, shared about his own career transition period. “The main challenge I faced was separating ‘Desean the Dancer’ from simply being ‘Desean’ as an individual. This distinction is something I am incredibly grateful to have discovered. We are more than just dancers; it’s not an identity, but just one beautiful part of who we are. We are as complex and multifaceted as the steps we perform, and there is so much more to us than simply being labeled as ‘the dancer.’ I was tired of playing a role that didn’t truly reflect my authentic self.” 

Desean graduated from Columbia University in May 2023 with an undergraduate degree in Anthropology with an emphasis in Climate and Indigenous Studies, and Business Management from Columbia Business School. He is currently enrolled in Cornell University’s “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Work” program. 

These stories and so many others are a reminder of how each dancer’s transition away from the stage is a deeply personal and unique journey. They may discover a new way to engage in the artistic community, they may find an utterly new path that taps into a side of themselves that has been hidden for so long, or maybe like Shelby, they may dream of starting a nonprofit to support dancers just like her. 

The Encore Fund’s Goal is to make sure that dancers feel supported in every step of the transition process, regardless of how they got there. As of right now, the organization is growing solely with the support of volunteers. All donations received are given directly back to the professional dance community in the form of their annual scholarship awards. The more donations received, the more dancers receive support. 

Dawn Atkins, a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet who has received a degree in Business Administration, reinforces how essential education is to even the ballet dancers who are still actively performing.  “Ballet is our livelihood and a passion but we are people with other interests and lives. School helped me remember I’m a whole person.”

Miami City Ballet. Photo credit @danielazoulayphotography

Our beloved ballet dancers are capable of beauty far beyond what they have already shared with us onstage. Through organizations such as The Encore Fund, we can empower them to discover new ways to give back to their community. After all the joy they have brought us through their craft, dancers deserve more than a final bow.

Learn more about The Encore Fund here. 

Alanna Love is a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.
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