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There's A Good Reason Paris Opera Dancers Retire At 42

Dancers don't have things as easy as the French government, which was looking to end their 'privileged' pension scheme, would have people believe.

A demanding dance
A demanding dance
Florence Didier-Lambert


PARIS — Performers at the Paris Opera were once again on strike, and information was again circulating about the the special pension scheme that allows the venue's dancers to retire at 42. But what's missing from the discussion, it seems to me, is a clear understanding of how the career of a professional dancer really plays out.

As a former opera dancer myself, I speak from experience.

When a 10-year-old child decides to apply for the Opera School of Dance, he or she leaves the normal schooling environment to enter a professional training course. If they are admitted to the dance school after a six-month course, they begin a double curriculum: school in the morning, dancing in the afternoon — and with two group classes a day, five days a week, supplemented during the holidays by workshops.

Every year, the young performer takes an exam to possibly move up a division, and all of that requires super-intensive training. Every year, he or she prepares for about a dozen shows, plus an open house day. And through it all, there are injuries, moments of feeling discouraged, sacrifices, failures and successes, problems with growth, adolescence, and so on and so forth.

When a dancer is 16 or 17, everything is decided in the "engagement class," at the end of which the students take a competitive exam to join the corps de ballet. There are four to six positions, rarely more, for two classes (boys, girls) of 12 students. This entrance exam takes place either in the year preceding the baccalaureate (the comprehensive, end-of-secondary-school test that French students take) or in the same year.

I still remember the jumps in the second Rite of Spring, eight weeks after giving birth by C-section.

Among the dancers who went through the process in my era, only two earned their baccalaureate. Some students opt out of the test thinking they'll be able to prepare for it later on — once they are hired in the corps de ballet — only to realize later that they'll never have time for it. Others, like me, fail to make the cut in the corps de ballet exam, complete their training elsewhere, and return to audition a few years later.

Once hired at 16, 17, or 20, you are a professional, with classes in the morning, rehearsals in the afternoon and shows in the evening (180 shows per year, about 90 per dancer). This includes weekends and public holidays — the shows on Dec. 24, 25, 30 and 31, and July 14 are very popular. Also, on Sundays there are often two performances.

We all love our job: the artistry, the shows, the tours — despite the exhausting travel involved, and even if we all inevitably face injuries one day, some of which require reconstructive surgery. Some dancers have the courage to have children (I still remember the jumps in the second Rite of Spring, eight weeks after giving birth by C-section).

Once hired by the Opera, the competition aspect of the job is far from over. Every year, to move up in the ranks — from quadrille to coryphée, to subject, to first dancer —dancers have to take new exams. There are a maximum of one or two positions per grade. The title of "étoile" is granted by decision of the administration. Each grade corresponds to a salary increase. Today the monthly salary for a quadrille is 2,000 euros. The "étoile" title, renegotiated each year according to its popularity, comes with a salary of 5,000 and 7,000 euros per month.

By age 42, this pace is no longer possible for most of us. And because of injuries, many dancers don't even last that long. Until 2019, dancers obtained a DE (state diploma) as a teacher. But from 2022 onwards, the revision of this diploma will make it impossible to access the required training. Dancers also have the right to one training, and only one, of their choice.

No one is waiting to hire you just because you're leaving the Opera.

What they leave with, then, is their pension, which for a quadrille is 1,200 euros per month. And that's for a full career (from 16 to 42 years old). Many of us, however, do not have a full career.

On paper, at least, retired dancers can find work elsewhere — as choreographers perhaps, or stage managers, ballet masters and teachers. In reality, though, things are hardly that simple. Good dancers don't necessarily make good choreographers. Stage managers positions are few and far between, and already filled by competent people. The same goes for ballet master and rehearsal director jobs.

That leaves teaching, but joining a conservatory is difficult. You start as a substitute, working temporarily, here and there. There are few permanent positions available, and those that do exist require dancers to take yet another competitive exam. Also, Opera retirees who do land one of those positions earn on average 2,500 euros per month, including pension and salary.

The point is: No one is waiting to hire you just because you're leaving the Opera. There's no special treatment. It's the opposite rather. You're seen as one of privileged few by everyone else in the profession, all those people who didn't make it to the Opera and have been struggling in far more precarious conditions than you.

As part of the pension reform project, the government was proposing to abolish the special regime for dancers. They say they'll instead offer new training opportunities, help guide dancer into new positions. Who really believes that?

The government's proposal is indecent. To claim that a dancer, whose professional life begins at the age of 10, can start another one, without any resources, after 32 years of dancing, is both inhumane and false. Who can guarantee that a company will be interested in such a specific CV?

It would seem, therefore, that dancers should just resign themselves to low-skilled jobs. But that's just insulting. After so much effort and excellence, after applauding them under the gilt of the Palais Garnier, after asking them to represent France on tour abroad, it's disrespectful.

It's also obvious that with such prospects, fewer children will choose the dancer's path. Indeed, abolishing the pension fund for the Opera's dancers is tantamount, in the very short term, to compromising the international quality of this exceptional company, if not its very existence.

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