Updated: Aug 9
By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
Can women consistently perform at a very high professional standard at mid-life? And if so, what if management wanted younger employees to take the lead?
Wendy Whelan faced this situation as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet (NYCB). After 30 years with the company, the ballet’s management asked Whelan to step back from principal dancer roles in 2014. However, the Kentucky native ultimately had the last laugh through a reinvention that has led to great acclaim.
Physical and Emotional Pain
The documentary, “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan,” available on numerous streaming services, describes Whelan’s journey. The movie starts as Whelan faces hip surgery. Interestingly, her hip pain increased when NYBC’s management asked her to drop out of The Nutcracker, which was a key part of Whelan’s repertoire. Starting as the Mouse at the age of 8, she performed various Nutcracker roles, including the principal role as the Sugar Plum Fairy for 22 seasons.
After her surgery, Whelan returned briefly to the company before retiring in 2014 at the age of 47. “Retired ballet stars generally take a few select paths in their second stage of life, among them teaching, joining the artistic staff at their home company, directing some other troupe, or running a university dance department,” wrote Washington Post reporter Sarah L. Kaufman in a December 2017 story. “Not many continue filling their calendar with dance gigs.”
However, Whelan defied these odds by transitioning to modern dance. She commissioned four cutting-edge choreographers to develop duets for her. She also starred in another effort that combined dance, opera, and puppetry. And–in a turnabout–Whelan rejoined the NYCB as the associate artistic director in 2019.
Still, this transition wasn’t easy and took some soul-searching. So what does Whelan’s journey offer in the way of lessons? Here are some:
Sometimes employers will push us out for the younger generation
While she was a world-class performer, Whelan wasn’t immune to the professional ballet company’s focus on an emerging generation. In today’s world, youth is highly prized, often to the exclusion of experience. As seasoned women, we need to decide where we belong. That may mean remaining in the workforce or we may want to create our own path.
Time and aging are critical factors in our lives
Whelan’s body was reaching a point where it was starting to have difficulty recuperating from injury. “The very few times I cried through the whole experience, it’s in the film,” Whelan told NPR. “But I was embarrassed about my limp, and there was a time that happened probably about halfway through the filming where I had difficulty walking. My leg wouldn’t accept the weight without a buckle, so dancing was a really big question.”
Life isn’t over at mid-life.
While Whelan didn’t have a grand plan, she did slowly come to terms with retirement. The acclaimed dancer pursued a different avenue that’s applauded by audiences and critics alike. She also is rediscovering her true essence. “I feel like I can be myself,” said Whelan about her retirement in a feature article in Dance Magazine. “I’m thinking and doing things I never would have imagined as a ballet dancer.”
Reinvention often requires baby steps
Whelan’s reinvention is a case of two steps forward, one step back. Still, she has made tremendous progress in building a new chapter. After a second hip surgery, the dancer is now pain-free – and pursuing her passion for dance.
And she’s found her voice as part of her reinvention. Now her friends encourage her to run for political office at some point. “Being able to use my voice, to have the confidence to say, ‘This is how I think,’ I’m digging that,” Whelan told Dance Magazine. “A lot of people don’t like me anymore on Instagram. And that’s okay.”