In the end, her censure didn’t matter; enough teachers supported his career plan. But her disapproval stuck in the back of Plaut’s brain. He still remembers that conversation now, as a 46-year-old microbiologist who not only went to college, but earned a PhD. Before pursuing higher education, however, he enjoyed a 14-year career as a professional ballet dancer in New York, Zurich and Washington.
Plaut’s dancer-to-doctor success story started onstage and ends in a vaccine research lab at the Food and Drug Administration. And while the number of dancers becoming scientists isn’t exactly skyrocketing, it’s now entirely possible for ballerinas to become rocket scientists.
For decades, most dance companies have pushed dancers to keep performing as long as they are physically able. Discussing “What will we do next?” was taboo. Slowly, that attitude is changing, says Elizabeth LaClause, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Career Transition for Dancers. “We tell dancers, ‘Take those classes while you are still dancing,’ ” LaClause said.
The Washington area, saturated with dance schools, has produced several dancers who excelled in ballet before pursuing careers in the sciences. Their stories run counter to stereotypes of former dancers, perceptions reinforced by movies and television shows such as “Bunheads,” on which a former ballerina turned washed-up showgirl played by Sutton Foster runs a charming small-town dance studio with her neurotic mother-in-law.
These sorts of portrayals — built on the assumption that retired dancers can’t do more than teach ballet and Pilates — infuriate Aaron Thayer, a 29-year-old Stanford bioengineering major (and former student of Plaut’s) who grew up dancing in Reston.
“Don’t even get me started,” Thayer said. “I feel like I live my life against a stereotype. . . . We dancers are out there. But when we retire, not a lot of people know where we go.”
Where do they go? They go to Stanford. They go to medical school. Some even go on missions to outer space.
Pas de deux with microbiology
Plaut’s name probably sounds familiar to anyone who has followed dance in Washington for more than a few years. He grew up taking classes at Maryland Youth Ballet, spent four seasons with the Washington Ballet and has taught at nearly a dozen area dance programs, often alongside his wife, Mané Rebelo-Plaut. But far fewer people know about the vitally important day job Plaut began five years ago at age 41: regulating and researching vaccines for the FDA.
“People don’t really think about what dancers do when they stop dancing,” Plaut said. “At the average ballet performance, the people onstage are usually pretty young. . . . But the truth is, there are not many jobs out there in the dance world for former dancers. And those jobs that are out there often aren’t steady, don’t provide health care and don’t allow you to retire.”