CBC Digital Archives

Not just a ballerina

When a journalist addressed Karen Kain as "prima ballerina" in 1974 the dancer quickly corrected him: "I wouldn't go that far." Kain didn't know at the time that she would one day become Canada's most popular dancer. The ballerina from Hamilton went on to draw ovations from international audiences, with performances of "Swan Lake" to the more risqué "Carmen." By the time she retired in 1997 after 27 years as a dancer with the National Ballet, Kain had more than earned the title prima ballerina.

Not just a ballerina -- or a pretty face. Karen Kain has evolved from the demure dancer who filled in for Veronica Tennant in Swan Lake.

"I have more confidence in my abilities than I ever had when I was young," she explains.

Kain is bold and self-assured. She's also become something of an activist. Interested in the plight of other dancers, she takes on the role of president for Toronto's Dancer Transition Resource Centre.

The centre helps ballerinas ease the trauma of getting injured or retiring. In this CBC clip, Kain explains that leaving the ballet can be a highly distressing experience. Because "you sleep dance, you eat dance and you dream dance," some ballerinas become extremely depressed when ballet is taken from their lives.
• The Dancer Transition Resource Centre was founded in 1985 by Joysanne Sidimus. Ballerinas become members as a form of insurance — they pay into the centre with the promise of help later down the road. They can apply for bursaries to retrain or to go back to school. Legal and career counselling is also available, as well as psychiatric advice.
• The centre says retirement age for ballerinas dropped from an average of 40 years old in the 1980s to 29 in the 1990s.

• Because of budget cuts in the 1990s, the National Ballet more often hires young affordable talent over veteran stars.
• Notable retirements:
• In 1971, Eric Bruhn, who later became a teacher, left the ballet at the age of 43.
• In 1985, Vanessa Harwood retired from the National Ballet at 38.
• Veronica Tennant retired at 41 in 1989.
• Frank Augustyn ended his career abruptly in 1993 after watching himself in what he called a "choppy and stiff" television performance.

• In 1998, dancer Kimberly Glasco sued the National Ballet for an alleged "wrongful dismissal" by artistic director James Kudelka. The ballerina claimed she wasn't dismissed because of poor performance, but because she was too old.
• In 1999, Kain backed Kudelka in a written statement.
• She said respecting the director's vision was essential for the company to function properly.

• Vanessa Harwood took the opposite view. The retired dancer posted a letter of support for the dismissed dancer on Bring Back Kimberly Glasco — a now defunct Web site.
• A settlement was reached between Glasco and the National Ballet. The ballerina agreed to retire after 20 years for an undisclosed "high six figures" paid to her by the company.
• Glasco was earning an annual salary of $100,000 when she retired. Novice dancers earn about a quarter of that.
Medium: Television
Program: Midday
Broadcast Date: Dec. 23, 1985
Guest(s): Karen Kain
Host: Peter Downie
Duration: 6:05

Last updated: February 10, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Leaders' Debates 1968-2011: Highlights

After months of anticipation and weeks of campaigning, it all comes down to one night. Televis...

Marc Garneau: Canadian Space Pioneer

His bravery is inspiring, his grace is charming and his credentials are out of this world. In ...

The Avro Arrow: Canada's Broken Dream

It's the closest thing Canadian industry has to a love story and a murder mystery. The Avro Ar...

1960: Canada celebrates two millionth immigra...

Annette Toft, formerly of Denmark, becomes Canada's two millionth immigrant since the Second W...