Figure Out What's Next

From Dancer to Dietician: Healthy Steps to a New Profession

back to school career change purposeful living susan crandell Apr 09, 2009

by Susan Crandell

photo by Stevepb

Helen Butleroff had a rewarding career as a Broadway dancer and choreographer. At 54, she made a surprising and successful shift to a completely different field—nutrition.

Helen’s Lesson: There’s no point in being bitter if you age out of your first career. Don’t dwell on the fact that life can be unfair. Dwell on a solution.

Tiny Dancer

One of Helen Butleroff’s earliest memories is being carried around by Sid Caesar. “My mom choreographed The Children’s Hour on NBC, and I was a regular on the show,” she says. “I loved it.” From the age of four until she was twelve, Helen sang and danced on live TV every week. At seventeen, her Broadway career was launched when she auditioned for the June Taylor Dancers, famous for performing on The Jackie Gleason Show. “Back then, June Taylor staged huge extravaganzas at the Jones Beach Theater. It was a Broadway contract, Broadway pay, and I thought I was really hot stuff.”

Helen thrived in the footlights’ glare, first on stage, then off. “It’s very unusual for a Broadway dancer not to wait tables, too, but I never had to.” She worked as a Radio City Rockette summers while she was getting her BA in theater at Queens College. “It’s fun the first time you’re in the line of girls. But it’s not rocket science. After three or four weeks, I was bored.” When dancing wasn’t thrilling enough anymore, she began to choreograph and ultimately to direct. “I danced in my twenties, choreographed in my thirties, and in my forties, I created, produced, and directed musicals.” Over thirty years, she worked on more than fifty musicals, on and off Broadway. One of the first shows she created, That’s Life!—about contemporary Jewish culture in America—opened to rave reviews. “I said to myself, Now I’ve done everything I wanted to do in my life. I have a great review in The New York Times.”

Facing Facts

It was a full and happy life, but Helen knew it couldn’t be forever. “In my career, unless you’re Bob Fosse, you age out, even if you’re a choreographer or director. You don’t have the same vision that younger people do.”

In her early fifties, when she stopped getting the kinds of jobs she wanted, Helen was crestfallen. But not for long. “You can dwell on the fact that life has not been fair, or you can figure out a solution. I’m the type of person who takes action.” And she knew what her second career would be. All those years in off-Broadway dressing rooms, the other dancers would be reading Glamour or Vogue, and Helen would have her nose in a medical journal. “In another life, I would have been a doctor,” she says. “But at fifty-four, I felt I was too old. What, I’d start practicing at sixty-seven?” Her husband, Robert Leahy, a psychologist and director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, applauded Helen’s decision to go back to school to study nutrition.

Even in the notoriously undernourished world of professional dancers, Helen had always been a healthy eater. “Ballerinas tend to have dysmorphic views of their bodies, a lot of which comes from crazy-ass teachers who tell them they have to be pencil thin.” Helen escaped the surge toward anorexia because she studied with her mom, a strong proponent of healthy eating, healthy weight. “Even way back then, I was eating soy, bran, fiber.”

Straight-A Student

Before plunging into graduate school, Helen enrolled in a nutrition course at NYU to make sure she was on the right track. She took to the subject matter immediately and decided to tackle the three-year program to become a registered dietitian. A professor encouraged her to develop an idea she had for a musical that would teach kids about the food pyramid. She started NYU’s RD program at age fifty-four. “Most of my fellow students were thirty years younger. They probably thought I was their mother, but when you’re around young people, you think you’re twenty-five again.” Helen loved studying but found it wasn’t easy to reincarnate math and science courses after decades away. So when victory came, it was especially sweet. “The first course in chemistry, I got a teacher who didn’t care if he failed all of New York. I got an A. It was unbelievable.” Math, with all the memorization, was just as tough. “The professors thought of me as a peer in life experience, which was good since I was a complete novice in everything else.” She graduated with a 3.975 average—“not because I’m that smart, but because when you’re older you work harder.” In her undergrad days, juggling college and dancing gigs, she’d been content with pulling B’s.

The other critical factor to her success was her marriage. “My ability to concentrate was there because I had a stable relationship at home.” While she was working on her RD, Helen developed her show, The Food Guide Pyramid Musical. As the children on stage dance their way through numbers like “Veggie Rock” and “Pasta Rasta Man,” classrooms absorb Helen’s Eat will, play hard message.”I bring in Broadway actors for a couple of the parts, which the kids just love. The show is really active, so at the same time they’re learning about nutrition, they’re also exercising.” A performance at PS 1 in Brooklyn led to funding to stage the musical in five more schools.

Her GPA and Pyramid helped Helen win a coveted position as one of fourteen students in a New York/Cornell/Columbia University internship, a yearlong program in which she rotates through the various services in the hospital, from pediatrics to geriatrics, from oncology to neurology. This summer, she’ll take the exam to become a registered dietitian.

Putting It All Together

Next year, Helen plans to set up a nutrition counseling business for private clients. “I’d like to see patients four days a week and have a nice, long weekend.” She’s converting her theater production office to a place where she can meet with clients, taking down the Broadway show posters and hanging her diplomas. “I’m going to build a Website and market myself. I’m very interested in geriatrics.”

She’s thrilled to have added the dietitian’s credentials at this time. “I’m fifty-eight, and I understand the concerns of people at midlife.” It’s a critical transition time nutritionally. “I know about menopause, I understand the dietary issues, the problems with weight gain, calcium loss. Diabetes can arise. I cannot tell you how many people I see in the hospital with cardiac disease who are my age.” And she’s just gotten funding to bring Pyramid to ten more New York City schools; an additional grant will extend her reach to schools across the state.

Does she miss performing? “I feel happy when young people are on the stage. What does Erik Erikson call it?—generativity. When you’re older, you’ve done it, you’re ready to move on.”

It would be hard to imagine two less likely careers to combine than nutritionist and Rockette. But that’s just what Helen has done.


Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of the book Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.

Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.


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