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Evolving to the Next Stage with Robert LaFosse

Evolving to the Next Stage with Robert LaFosse
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Photo Credit: Enrique Menendez

By Lori Bonfitto

Writer Lori Bonfito plays on a co-ed softball team the Jesters with renowned American ballet dancer Robert LaFosse and says, “The funny thing is for the longest time I admired Robert for his pitching prowess without having a clue he had been a principle dancer with both the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, and a Tony Award nominee. Learning these things about Robert deepened my respect for him for what he was able to accomplish during his career, but more importantly, how he prevailed when that chapter of his life ended.”

Many of us have experienced what it’s like to get attached to the roles we play in life. Whether it’s parent, child, teacher, student, professional, athlete or artist, we allow what we do to define our identity and control our self-worth. The greater the role, the stronger the identification.

LaFosse experienced this as a young dancer growing up in Beaumont, Texas. “You fall in love with something like a sport or dance, something that you’re passionate about and you’re good at so it builds self-esteem.”

The danger of identifying with any role lies in what happens when the ability to perform that part is taken away. The classic example is the empty nest syndrome. Devoted parents watch their last child grow up and leave home. Suddenly they don’t know who they are or what their purpose is.

Such a profound loss can happen quickly or over time. For LaFosse it happened at an age, which for most of us is the prime of life. “Cartilage in my hips started to wear thin and then eventually there was no cartilage at all. And that’s from rotation. From making my hip socket rotate out, which is abnormal. What ballet dancers do is highly abnormal.”

A dancer’s life is very similar to a professional athlete’s.  While the average person’s career is just beginning, their careers are wrapping up. What happens when you can no longer do the thing you love to do? The thing that defines you?

“It’s a really traumatic moment in a dancer’s life because you realize your body can only go so far. And then there comes that cut off time where they have to decide if they’re going to do something else. When that happens they don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s like a little death almost.”

And just like experiencing a death, LaFosse, now 55-years old, went through the grieving process. “I went through the angry stages, I went through the denial. Denial is when you think you’re never going to stop dancing. I was in denial about having to do something else.”

LaFosse describes the dance world as unforgiving. “They kind of throw you out cause there’s nothing else for you to do.”

Some ballet companies allow “aging” dancers to stay on and perform character roles. LaFosse continues to appear on stage in this capacity, but only one of every hundred dancers chooses to do so. “Once you’ve known a certain quality, it becomes less desirable not to play at that level. You know what your heights were. You know what you’re capabilities were, and that can be depressing.”

At some point we all hit that wall where we can no longer do a certain cherished activity. Some have to give up traveling. Others find their diminished mental acuity no longer supports intellectual pursuits. If we can hang onto some aspect of our bliss, as opposed to completely walking away, we can eventually find peace and acceptance. But change is nevertheless hard.

“I went through a good ten years of depression and I turned to drugs for a while. It’s devastating. I mean, when you had something that was your identity and basically it was your self-esteem. I think for me it was a slow process. I got sober and went to 12-step programs and through that process it helped me.”

One of the things we so desperately need when dealing with any loss is the support of community. Unfortunately, when it’s a career that has ended, we sometimes lose touch with the people who’ve been so important in our daily lives. Finding new roles and exploring other interests is key to expanding our sense of self. For LaFosse, he discovered a new bliss on the softball field via the Big Apple Softball League.

Insert 1-Jesters

“I lose sense of time when I’m playing softball. Just like in dance, I forget that time went by.

It’s so wonderful. It’s enjoyable and there’s a sense of learning something and working on something constantly. And I enjoy that. No matter what age you are you can always challenge yourself.”

LaFosse also found another way to challenge himself in the dance world. “I started to teach and I had to learn to become a teacher, which took me like five to ten years just to develop that skill. There was a teacher trainer course I took at the American Ballet Theatre.”

It seems only natural that LaFosse would become a teacher. He is an example of how life can remain brilliant even with the wane of a brilliant career.

“You become grateful for everything that you had,” he says. “I had an extraordinary career and I get to look back on it and be extremely grateful. And you start to realize how much other people had to do with getting you where you are today. It’s an incredible feeling to look back and reassess.”

And a final note from the #FITNF’s editorial staff:

The Big Apple Softball League is an LGBT not-for-profit adult community based sports organization. Many LGBT straight people play with this league and their ages range from mid-twenties to late sixties. Visit: www.bigapplesoftball.com.



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