Inside the Last Day of a Ballerina’s Career

May 21, 2024

Caitlin Valentine has experienced nearly everything the ballet world can offer. After being handpicked by Fernando Bujones to join Orlando Ballet at age 16, she performed the leading role in nearly every classical ballet, had multiple works created on her, medaled in the New York International Ballet Competition, and realized a dream-come-true career spanning Orlando Ballet, Colorado Ballet, and, lastly, BalletMet. On April 28, after a 22-year career, Valentine stepped onstage for her final performance, dancing as Juliet in artistic director Edwaard Liang’s Romeo and Juliet.

The appreciation and support surrounding Valentine that day was palpable. BalletMet honored Valentine that day witha curtain speech, a reception to celebrate her career (along with outgoing artistic director Edwaard Liang), and a packed audience that brought down the house at the end of the performance. She’ll remain at BalletMet, teaching in the school and working on development for the organization.

A ballet career is often so fleeting, and most dancers feel it passes all too quickly. Below, Valentine shares her account of her final day as a professional dancer. —Katie Slattery

Sunday Morning

After performing Juliet on both Friday and Saturday, you might think I would have slept in, but I woke before my alarm, around 8:15 am. I was sleeping on the couch because my family had flown in to support me. I had woken up around 3:30 in the morning feeling a little overwhelmed and nervous with all that was to come; it was hard to know what to expect, and I wanted my final performance to go as seamlessly as possible. My goal was to be in the moment onstage and to enjoy every moment—easier said than done!

I had coffee and breakfast with my family, but due to all the excitement and nerves it was hard to get anything down. I said goodbye and was the first dancer to sign in at the theater. Company class onstage felt surreal, like a dream rather than these exercises I have known my whole life. Our company pianist knows that I love musical theater and Harry Potter, and throughout class he played songs he knew I would enjoy. It made me so happy! Our teacher that day was Andres Estevez, someone I have known most of my life [Valentine and Estevez met in 2001 as dancers at Orlando Ballet], so it felt so special having him teach my last class at the Ohio Theatre.

Pre-Performance Jitters

Once class was over, I began feeling a lot of different emotions leading up to the half-hour call. I felt more nervous than I had in a long time, so I listened to my Romeo and Juliet song playlist to help calm my nerves and focus. 

  • In this grainy, black and white photo, Caitlin Valentine does the splits on her dressing room floor. She wears warm-up clothing and bootie slippers, and her face has stage makeup on it.
  • In this grainy black and white photo, Caitlin Valentine stands backstage and puts her hands on her ribcage as a dresser hooks up the back of her costume. Valentine wears a filmy, calf-length dress with an empire waist.
  • Caitlin Valentine and Miguel Anaya hug backstage. Valentine wears a filmy dress and her hair in a bun, while Anaya wears a dark, velvet tunic and dark pants.

Funny enough, what actually helped me was a pointe shoe disaster: I was backstage checking my Act I shoes in the mirror and saw a strange bulge on my right shoe. The side of my shoe had basically exploded! Never in my 22-year career had anything like this happened. My colleague ran up to my dressing room to grab my Act III shoesluckily, they felt strong enough to wear for the more technically demanding choreography in the first act. But in hindsight, I think the distraction helped calm my nerves! 

Performance Time

Once I was onstage, everything went by so quickly. As dancers we depend on our muscle memory to help us through, and I felt it take over as I began to dance. I didn’t have many thoughts about it being my last show once I was onstage. Instead, I tried to live in the moment and give everything I had to the performance. Some of it feels like a blur now, especially my first entrance with the Nurse, and the ballroom scene. Time slowed down a bit during the balcony pas de deux; I made sure to really soak in all the beautiful moments in the choreography. As I heard the audience break into applause, I tried to remember exactly what it all felt like.

During a performance, Miguel Anaya lifts Caitlin Valentine by the waist as she leaps into the air and reaches her upper body and arms back. She wears a filmy, cream-colred dress, tights and pointe shoes and he wears white tights and shoes and a white, blousy tunic. The stage is dark, and the backdrop is lit with small stars.
Valentine and Miguel Anaya perform a pas de deux from Edwaard Liang’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet.

My partner, Miguel Anaya, was my rock. This was our third time dancing Romeo and Juliet together, and we had the most fun revisiting it leading up to my retirement. During the performance, we would encourage each other, give hugs here and there. I can’t explain how special it is to have a dance partner you really connect with and can trust when dancing a ballet like Romeo and Juliet.

Right before the final curtain went up on Act III, we shared a quiet moment onstage. No one else was around, and, without words, we sat together and took it all in for the very last time. He’s been my favorite partner, and I am so grateful for sharing this ballet and experience with him. It was a little bittersweet, but I felt such peace sitting there before the final act of my career.

Final Bows

Then, just like that, I was lying on the floor at the end of the crypt scene, and the curtain fell. The emotions leading up to Juliet’s death are so intense, and I let myself really live all of it in my heart. With tears in our eyes, Miguel and I rose together, held hands, and prepared for bows. The final bows were overwhelming! You’d think as dancers we love the limelight, but it felt so strange to be the center of attention. The love I felt was something I will never forget. Tears of gratitude slid down my cheeks.

Caitlin Valentine bows deeply center stage after a performance of Romeo and Juliet. She is costumed in a filmy pink dress, tights and pointe shoes and wears her long hair pulled back away from her face. Her dance partner stands slightly behind her dressed in a red velvet tunic and white tights and boots, and claps towards her. A large group of dancers also in costume stand in the background in various Renaissance-style costumes, applauding.
Valentine takes a bow as the company applauds. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet.

When the curtain finally came down, the company cheered all around me, and I couldn’t wait to start hugging everyone and thanking them. It meant so much to me that so many people from different times throughout my career came from across the country to celebrate with me. I will never forget this day, and how special and rewarding my years dancing, and particularly this final performance, felt.