By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
What if you could consistently perform at the very highest standard at mid-life and your boss told you that you needed to step back and let others take the lead? How would you take it? That’s what Wendy Whelan faced as the New York City Ballet’s principal dancer. After 30 years with the company, Whelan was asked to step back from prime roles, even though she could still perform them. However, the Kentucky native ultimately had the last laugh as her reinvention has led to great acclaim.
Her journey is described in the documentary, “Restless Creature – Wendy Whelan,” which is available for streaming on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. The movie starts as Whelan faces hip surgery. Interestingly, her hip pain became noticeable only after the ballet company’s director asked her to consider dropping out of The Nutcracker. That iconic ballet had been a key part of Whelan’s repertoire. She first performed as the mouse at the age of 8. Whelan continued to perform in various Nutcracker roles for the New York City Ballet, including the Arabian dance in 1993 and 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.”
Whelan, however, did continue performing by making the transition to modern dance. However, that 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. Whelan was a world-class performer. However, she wasn’t immune to the pressures of an emerging generation. In today’s world, youth is highly prized, often to the exclusion of experience. Admittedly, Whelan’s body at some point would no longer have been able to handle the rigors of ballet. However, it’s sad that she was given a premature exit.
- Life isn’t over at mid-life. While Whelan didn’t have a grand plan, she did slowly come to terms with retirement. She also has pursued a different avenue that has led to plaudits from audiences and critics alike. She also is at the center of the well-received documentary that offers lessons for every person facing a new life chapter.
- Reinvention often requires baby steps. Whelan’s reinvention is a case of one step forward, two steps back. Still, she has made tremendous progress in building a new chapter. After a second hip surgery, the dancer is now pain-free – and still pursuing her passion at the age of 50.
We should take heart in Whelan’s story and realize that we, too, can author a new chapter. We just need to be brave enough to identify and then pursue our next challenge.