These Dancers Pursued Passions Outside of the Studio—and Found Fulfilling Second Careers

January 11, 2021

By nature, dancers are dedicated to preparing and rehearsing. Whether thinking ahead by sewing multiple pairs of shoes or making sure their plié is the perfect preparation for a pirouette, they practice forethought with as much regularity as taking daily class. Some even consciously apply that concept outside of the studio, which not only informs their dancing but also positions them for what might happen when they take their final bows.

Embracing more than one passion sometimes seems unrealistic with the amount of focus required to dance professionally, but it can pay off in the long run. Below are three artists who leveraged outside interests to inspire their performances, while seamlessly preparing them for fulfilling second careers.

Elena Bello: Richmond Ballet, 2010–20

Elena Bello has two clear passions: dancing and caring for animals. Choosing to first pursue dance, Bello joined Richmond Ballet in 2010 after attending SUNY Purchase. When Bello’s grandmother and dog Rufio both passed away in 2018, she started volunteering at the Richmond SPCA as a way to lift her spirits. “I needed a regular serotonin boost, and I knew puppies could give it to me,” says Bello.

She started helping at the SPCA on the weekends and enjoyed it so much she started going in between rehearsals when her schedule allowed. “If I had a break after class, I could volunteer in the hospital wing, and that’s where I could see the surgery area. I was intrigued by it and knew that was where I wanted to focus.”

A young Black woman in a black Napoleon hat, black sweatshirt, and stage makeup holds a small brown dog and stands next to a white female dancer in a gray sweatshirt and a sparkly headpiece and an older white woman with a blonde bob and wearing a black gingham blouse.

Bello (left) with a fellow Richmond Ballet dancer and artistic director Stoner Winslett backstage during “Pupcracker,” a special Nutcracker performance featuring adoptable shelter dogs from Richmond’s SPCA.

Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet

Eventually, Bello started shadowing a veterinary technician on the weekends. The experience was so rewarding that she enrolled in a two-year program at Blue Ridge Community College to earn a veterinary technician degree. “I started learning new things and discovered my passion for animals was growing stronger than my passion for dancing,” says Bello, who was able to attend some classes virtually. She balanced her prerequisite studies while simultaneously tackling roles at Richmond Ballet, dancing Carabosse in Malcolm Burn’s Sleeping Beauty and creating new works with choreographers such as Kate Skarpetowska and Val Caniparoli.

Having reached a point where she would have to attend labs in person and fulfill an experiential-learning requirement, Bello made plans to retire from dance in May of 2020. Though it was temporarily thwarted by the pandemic, she had a masked retirement performance in September—all while juggling full-time school and working at Wellesley Animal Hospital 20 hours a week. When she took her final bow, she felt like she was living her dream as a “ballerina vet.”

Eric Holzworth: Sacramento Ballet, 2005–08

Eric Holzworth’s inspired dancing at Sacramento Ballet journeyed into editorial and entertainment public relations with Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana. “As an artist, it is impossible not to draw from anything and everything to enhance your art,” says Holzworth. At Sacramento Ballet, his calendar followed a typical professional schedule of seasonal dancing combined with regular summer layoffs. One summer he applied to J.Crew, at the suggestion of his mother, to try something new in his off time. There he discovered that his interest in fashion shared traits with his interest in ballet, as he saw clothing as art and garments as vocabulary to tell a story.

A white male dancer in a green turtleneck sweater, calf-length white tights and tan ballet slippers jumps in second position with his arms out to the side and hands flexed.
Former Sacramento Ballet dancer Eric Holzworth became interested in the fashion industry after he spent a summer layoff working at J. Crew.

Brian Jamie, Courtesy Holzworth

With his interest piqued, Holzworth began learning more by what he describes as “stalking the industry”: Watching runway shows on YouTube, investigating different fashion houses online and combing through issues of Vogue. “It’s just like ballet because fashion is a fantasy world that transports you to another place,” he says. After retiring in 2008, Holzworth felt pulled to the fashion industry and moved on to be a personal stylist at J.Crew. Learning on the job, he gained skills in sales and public relations.

When his department was eliminated at J.Crew, he transitioned to Burberry and ultimately landed at Dolce & Gabbana, where he is fully immersed in public relations. “I have finally found the same artistic enrichment that I did as a dancer,” says Holzworth. “I get that same rush working with Dolce as I did performing.”

Jermel Johnson: Pennsylvania Ballet, 2003–present

Pennsylvania Ballet principal Jermel Johnson has always enjoyed creating art. “My mom encouraged crafting, and I was one of those kids who would weave the wires of broken stuff,” says Johnson. In 2015, he started creating wire-wrapped jewelry as a hobby and shared pieces with friends. “I kind of forced it on them like, ‘Here, you should wear this!’ And then they would.” Recipients always met him with encouraging feedback and even specific requests for protection pieces; eventually he created an Etsy store, Inspired Adornments By JJ. Johnson, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, often makes jewelry on his daily commute on Amtrak, a two-hour trip each way. “It’s a great icebreaker,” he says. “I’ve sort of built an audience on the train.”

An African American male dancer, wearing indigo pants and a mesh, indigo button-down blouse, does a grand battement with his right leg and lean off balance to the left, with his arms out and tilted in a diagonal.
Jermel Johnson, shown here in rehearsal at Pennsylvania Ballet, has a successful side business crafting jewelry.

Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Last year Johnson refined his approach to jewelry making, marrying the intentional health benefits of the materials like silver, copper and crystals with the inspiration he finds in the studio from costumes and movement. “The wire wrapping has a free-flow movement similar to port de bras or the way a skirt moves in rehearsal.” Johnson finds that the energy he has cultivated in dance has a symbiotic relationship with his jewelry, as they both harness the power and transference of energy and help him share a manifestation of joy with others. “When I see someone wearing a piece of my jewelry it’s up there with [the feeling I get] with performing,” he says.

Four copper-wire necklaces with a yellow, light green, orange and dark green stone, respectively, are lined up right to left on a plank of wood.
A collection of Johnson’s wire-wrapped jewelry

Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Though still dancing, Johnson is expanding his understanding of energy and flow at the Lancaster School of Cosmetology & Therapeutic Bodywork, where he’s studying massage therapy. Further informed by these studies, he intends to utilize all of his passions in his future.