For Older Dancers First Hitting the Job Market, Age Can Feel Like a Stigma

September 13, 2021

Joining a company at age 16 still carries a certain glamour, even as we’ve learned of the difficulties and stress this can cause. Conversations about making ballet more inclusive and focused on well-being are gaining momentum, but there is a group of dancers who face challenges in the field who aren’t talked about often: those who first hit the job market at a later age.

Many trainee and second company programs advertise age limits at 22 or 23, while most companies ask dancers for their age on audition forms—a practice that can make older, less experienced dancers feel like they need not apply.

For those who start training late or choose to attend college, this can leave them aged out of opportunities to gain professional experience, or force them to compete for main company positions against dancers who have already gone through the junior ranks.

Will Jessup started dance training at age 17. “I had never even seen a ballet, but the first time I touched a barre for a plié, I fell in love with it,” he says. “I wanted to see where it could go.” He worked hard to catch up. The Canadian eventually moved from his home in Calgary to Edmonton and then Vancouver to pursue training opportunities while working side jobs in retail.

He’s about to enter his third year of training with Lamondance’s pre-professional program and just turned 25.

Will Jessup, 25, started training at age 17 and hopes to audition for company positions this year. Miles Clarke, Courtesy Jessup

Jessup feels ready to put himself out there, but he knows opportunities that correspond with his experience are limited. One way to gain exposure and make connections is through summer repertoire intensives. But he struggled to find one without a younger age cap. For instance, he saw that Arts Umbrella has an advertised age limit of 24 for its postsecondary summer course, so he didn’t apply. 

This year, Jessup will start auditioning mostly for main company spots. “To go into an audition with people who have had all this experience learning rep from amazing choreographers and performing professionally—I’ve had none of that but will still try to make the case to whoever is sitting up front,” he says.

More Guideline Than Hard Line?

Anna Jensen also got a late start. She enrolled at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet at age 20 and spent three years there before joining Montgomery Ballet as a trainee. Now 25, she’s looking for a position for the upcoming season. But she has found her age and corresponding experience to be a major roadblock—even though she is willing to consider unpaid positions if she can balance it with other work, as she did in Montgomery.      

Jensen recently applied to Festival Ballet Providence’s summer repertoire workshop for 18- to 22-year-olds, where the company chooses trainees for the following season. Jensen said she was 22 on her application form, and was accepted.

“I believed once they saw me dance, they wouldn’t really care about age,” says Jensen. “It’s not like I’m wrinkly and decrepit.”

But perhaps the lie wasn’t necessary. A few weeks before the program started, Jensen decided to email the registrar and inform them of an error in her birth date and offered her real age. She was not disinvited from the workshop. 

Kathleen Breen Combes, director of Festival Ballet Providence, says that the 18-to-22 age range is meant to encourage dancers coming out of college to apply who might need a bridge year before company auditions, and that being over 22 is not a deal breaker.

“We’re absolutely open to dancers over 22 and have had several join,” she says. “The age range is more of a general guideline.”

Arts Umbrella in Vancouver expresses a similar sentiment. “Our stated age limit of 24 years old for participation in our intensive is more of a guideline than a hard limit, and we welcome all young professionals to apply,” says Jeremy Orsted, operations manager for the Dance Department.

Age on Audition Forms

It’s a relatively common practice for companies to ask for a dancer’s date of birth—including the year—on audition forms. Jensen has at times left her age off applications, but companies usually then make a point to ask her. She worries they will write her off before looking at her abilities. When she applied to Ballet West and Ballet West II, she was told there were not likely to be open positions. But while she admits that Ballet West is more of a “reach” company for her, she also wonders if her age and relative inexperience were behind their response.

Ballet West’s artistic director Adam Sklute says that’s not the case.

“There’s nothing wrong with knowing a dancer’s age,” says Sklute. “But that’s just one factor in determining the best placement for a dancer.”

Sklute started training at 17 and joined Joffrey II at 19, so he sympathizes with dancers getting a later start and keeps an open mind. There have been dancers in the main company who joined Ballet West II at 24 and moved up, performing leading roles with Ballet West.

Perhaps the reason dancers like Jessup and Jensen are deterred by posted age limits and disclosure requirements is the unspoken culture of prizing youth in dance.

Anna Jensen wears a white tutu with gold trim and a gold crown and performs in a large dance studio in front of a seated audience. She stands in sus-sous on pointe with her left leg in front and holds her arms in third position.
Anna Jensen performs at Montgomery Ballet. Thomas Lucas, Courtesy Jensen

“You can feel the eyes on you, wondering how many years you have left,” says Jensen. “We don’t value the experience of dancers in their 30s and 40s, so when you’re older than your peers you have the stigma of being further away from the young faces people are excited about.”

While there is work to do to address wider issues of ageism, Jensen says a good place for companies to start is with rethinking how age factors into trainee and second company opportunities, and explicitly welcoming dancers of any age they are open to hiring.

“I hope things change,” says Jensen. “​​In the future, maybe this will just be a wild story that I tell about how I had to lie about my age when I was only 25.”