Atlanta Ballet’s Christine Winkler embarks on exciting new horizons

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"Swan Lake" Winkler and Hooper (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

“Swan Lake” Winkler and Hooper (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

Retirement can have a much heavier and dire impact on a dancer’s life than it might on the lives of other professionals.

A dancer devotes his or her entire existence to the art form. Female ballet dancers often start dancing around the age of four or five, while male ballet dancers sometimes start later.

Regardless of the onset age of training, once it has begun, a dancer’s life is dedicated to the pursuit of the intangible. A professional dancer must be driven, fearless, determined and passionate, and, he or she must be willing to endure both physical and financial hardship.

As dancers reach their artistic prime, their bodies start to decline, making it difficult to keep up with the physical demands of the career. And even though retiring from the stage is inevitable, there doesn’t seem to be enough conversation around it within the industry, dialogue that could perhaps make dancers less anxious about the transition.

Over the past ten years, more dancers are considering creative ways to continue to keep dance in their lives, despite having left the stage. The transition from frequent performer to a more stationary job can seem daunting for someone who’s body possesses a hunger for movement. Dancers are accustomed to being in the studio seven to eight hours a day, six days a week, and their bodies become accustomed to the physical release offered by movement.

So, how does one transition from an occupation requiring the utmost physicality to an occupation requiring significantly less?

Creativity and drive come into play when transitioning to an offstage life, though often a clear career path is not always visible.

Christine Winkler of the Atlanta Ballet is now staring these questions right in the face, as she gave her final performance with the company during “Mayhem” the weekend of May 17 at the Cobb Energy Center.

"Berceuse" Christine Winkler and Jonah Hooper (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

“Berceuse” Christine Winkler and Jonah Hooper (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

The theatre was quite full, as patrons arrived to witness Winkler’s final curtain call.

In between rehearsals, Winkler shared a few thoughts with me regarding her transition from the stage to whatever is to come.

She began dancing for Atlanta Ballet nineteen seasons ago, at age twenty-one.

The total transformation required of actors is similar to that required of dancers, and Winkler’s ability to fully embody a role is a gift that sets her a part from other professionals in the field.

When asked about her plans following the “Mayhem” performance run, Winkler expressed excitement about having time to be with her son, Lucas.

She also recently accepted a position as an adjunct professor in the Department of Dance at Kennesaw State University (KSU), an academic program that has a partnership with Atlanta Ballet.

At KSU, Winkler will have a chance to pass on her love of the art form as well as her innate knowledge of the body and movement to aspiring young artists.

With regards to how she plans to manage the physical transition from dancing all day to not being as physical, Winkler says that she looks forward to getting back into swimming, especially with her son.

She also plans to spend as much time as possible outdoors.

"The Authors" Christine Winkler and John Welker (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

“The Authors” Christine Winkler and John Welker (Photo: Charlie McCullers)

Thankfully, there are several forms of movement and meditation that can serve as healing supplements to post performance existence.

Pilates and yoga provide two different approaches to achieving stability and strength in the body, and the aftermath of a session of either or both can often offer a similar feeling of physical release, similar to that offered by dance. Subtle, somatics-based exercises may also prove to be healing; the idea being that an individual’s self-awareness can improve movement and posture.

For a classically trained dancer who has spent her entire life moving in a particular way, providing the body with tools to retrain over-worked muscles can be revolutionary.

There are also various careers that allow trained dancers to keep the art form in their lives, but in a different capacity, like majoring in dance, writing for a dance publication, teaching dance, choreographing, or working in arts administration.

Many times, former professional dancers find ways to incorporate their love of dance into an occupation entirely their own — as many {DIYdancer} contributors have done.

As members of the dance community, whether still active in it or transitioning into new, exciting roles, it’s our responsibility to facilitate conversation around dancer retirement — perhaps reinventing the term all together.

With regards to Winkler, Atlanta is truly lucky to have had the honor of watching her dance these past nineteen years.

So, on behalf of the city, I say to her, thank you for sharing your gift with us.

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