Did I really dance ballet professionally!?
You’d probably never guess looking at me now – you don’t want to see me in lycra today – but yes, I did dance professionally. It seems like a lifetime ago, but I was a professional ballet dancer with both the Boston Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada before retiring from the stage in the summer of 2000. Prior to my last performance I never really wanted to think about the “next chapter” too much and if you asked me, I was just looking forward to no pain, injuries, or taking anti-inflammatories daily.
I had been teaching at Canada’s National Ballet School part-time since 1993 (I still teach on Saturdays during the school year), so teaching full time seemed like a natural progression and evolution which I embraced. However, as I began to pursue that path, I soon realized that while I loved teaching, it was only in limited doses, not in teaching multiple classes 5-6 days a week. I found teaching ballet fulltime to be stifling – it felt like I was stuck in the studio all day long – and I soon found myself yearning to break free and use a different part of my brain.
As a dancer I was considered to be socially outgoing, articulate and good with donors. The National Ballet of Canada offered me the opportunity to work in their fundraising department and – as an ex-dancer who could speak in complete sentences – I was a natural. At first it was great, and I enjoyed myself immensely, but now that I was “on the other side”, the very people I had danced on stage with just a year prior were suddenly the worst part of the job. I had to spend my days tracking down dancers to RSVP to post performance parties or events and their commitment to attend was always tenuous at best. It’s interesting to view people you’ve known for years from a different perspective and what I saw told me I needed a much bigger change.
So, I took my limited experience and skills (outside of ballet) on the road and landed at Creeds Dry Cleaning working on the insurance claims side of the business. It was a total departure that challenged me daily and taught me so much about business, customer service, and sales. It was now 2006 and I had the chance to manage sponsors for the International AIDS Conference in Toronto that summer. It would be a total challenge and out of my comfort zone BUT I went for it and had a blast. After the conference ended, I worked as a sponsorship manager for AIDS Committee of Toronto and then moved onto Harbourfront Centre – at each organization witnessing, absorbing, and learning so much.
Then came the opportunity of a lifetime – to work with Bonnie Hillman at A&C. We had met socially 3 years prior and after our 3rd annual lunch date to touch base and network, she offered me a job. That was 10 years ago (seems like yesterday) and I continue to have the time of my life – always absorbing, learning as much as I can, so that I can be that much better for the next project we take on.
-James O’Connor, Vice President, Partnerships