From Pirouette to Pilot: How Christa Kloosman used her professional dance skills to find her place in the sky
When she was four years old, Christa Kloosman saw ''The Nutcracker''and was totally enchanted. She started taking ballet lessons as a young child and continued throughout her school years, studying dance during the afternoons and on weekends. When she was 16, she was accepted at the dance academy in Tilburg where she was fast tracked to advanced classes and was a guest student at a Belgian ballet company. Christa later trained in Austria before being offered a contract at the Dutch National Opera.
It was during her mid-twenties that Christa got a series of injuries which kept her away from performing and taking class for months at a time. She soldiered on despite the pain, telling herself "It's better than yesterday.", but more injuries followed. At a certain point, Christa knew she needed to find another perspective, so she decided to step back from the stage and the whole performing arts world. Her goal was to take a break, relax and get healthy again. She decided to enroll in a stewardess training program at KLM.
I interviewed Christa in 2013 when she was just starting out as a pilot. To celebrate her being honored as a unique ''Nederlander'' I wanted to share her thoughts and observations again about her experience of being a dancer transitioning to a new career.
You entered a program to become a stewardess but ended up as a pilot. How did that happen?
I thought the KLM stewardess training program would give me some time to think about my situation. I had always liked traveling, so I would have the chance to finally see something of the world. The amazing thing is that the moment I entered the plane on my first day of training, I realized that I actually didn't want to turn to the right to the passenger section with the rest of my class, but that I would much rather make a left straight into the cockpit! I thought, 'Hey pilot! That's really something for me." And maybe I was a bit naïve - like many dancers - but I applied directly to the pilot academy - and I was accepted!
What was it like to make the career switch from the dance world to the culture of airplanes and pilots?
Actually, it was not as big a leap as you would think. In both environments I was surrounded by people who, like myself, were focused and passionate about achieving their goals, whether it was to be a star professional dancer or an excellent pilot. My experience of the two professions is pretty similar, except that I am not putting my leg so high in the air anymore.
In what other ways is dancing like flying a plane?
As in a dance performance, every flight is the result of the combined efforts of dedicated professionals behind the scenes. A dancer appears on stage knowing the steps and the choreographer who made them, the stage manager calling the cues and the conductor who leads the orchestra. She or he is supported by a team of dancer colleagues accomplished musicians. And without the technical guys who drive the whole production from one location to the next, the whole thing would never ''get off the ground."
As a pilot you have to rehearse your tasks - the order, the timing and the interactions with your colleagues. You know your crew, and how they got trained. You rely on experts to check the plane and give it fuel. Air traffic controllers call the cues. The plane doesn't take off just because you are piloting it - there is a whole production team of people behind you who makes sure that the ''performance'' happens.
What is it like to be a female pilot in a profession traditionally dominated by men?
In my flight academy class of 20, there were only two women, myself included. Yet being a woman in this profession can be an advantage these days. KLM, like many other western airlines, is committed to hiring more female pilots. They have realized that female pilots create more balance in the cockpit, alongside male pilots. Women look at things differently, they are more creative and more precise in their work. So they are considered an asset to the flight industry.
Which skills cultivated during your dance career helped you to become a pilot?
When you are performing on stage and something goes wrong - with the lights, the music or the choreography- you have to make snap decisions and work with what you've got: your body, the choreography, your knowledge of the music, your awareness of who else is on stage with you, and the technical support off-stage. You improvise a solution by working with the material at hand and solve the problem so that things can continue.
That is exactly what you need to do when you are having trouble in the cockpit: quick clear thinking and the ability to improvise. Although serious malfunctions while in flight are rare, if all of a sudden an engine stops, there is an explosion or a drop off - the same principle applies: you know yourself, the material and the capacities of the person sitting next to you and you have to think quickly and stay cool, just as you would when the unexpected happens in a dance performance.
I also discovered that my short-term memory skills were highly developed from my dance training. While I found it challenging to absorb a lot of information out of text books, once I was in the cockpit - learning all kinds of codes for radar and operating information, I could immediately function on a very high level. This particular skill - used to pick up combinations in dance class for example - demands that you become a keen observer of details and process it all in a very short time. You repeat it a couple of times and then you've got it.
In the cockpit I'm sitting next to the captain or my second officer behind me, and I’m also interacting with the cabin crew. I can pick up on important information because of a heightened sensitivity to how people use their bodies. I can quickly understand the strengths, weakness and styles of the colleagues I ''partner'' with. I multi-task by managing several channels of awareness at the same time. Certainly not all pilots have this skill.
As an ex-dancer, what was the most challenging part of your pilot training?
Because of my intense focus on dancing when I was in high school, I never learned science and math. I needed to quickly catch up in these areas. So I put in the extra study time and got a certificate in these subjects. Because I wasn't used to studying in this way, it took me more time to learn. In some ways I had to work harder than my colleagues. But I also proved to myself ''You are never too old to learn."
Where there any qualities developed as a dancer that you had to overcome as a pilot?
Yes, that was 'perfectionism' - that little voice inside that tells you that your leg isn't turned out enough, your dancing could always be more precise, you could be thinner than you are - anything I did could always be better. This attitude is a major weakness if you are a pilot. You must able to cope with things not going perfectly in order to pilot a plane safely. You need the ability to spread your focus on everything that is happening, because if you become obsessed with one detail, other things will fall apart. I learned this already from day one as a stewardess, which helped me to prepare for the flexibility I needed as a pilot.
What would you advise other dancers in career transition?
I would say, ''just be yourself" and don't ever underestimate what you have already achieved. There are so many skills you learn as a dancer that are transferrable to another profession.
Focus on yourself and don't be concerned about what other people think of you. Take whatever support is offered. Seek contact with people outside the theater and artistic world as much as possible.
Because the dance world can be so isolating, it's good, even temporarily, to have a little job outside the theater world. It doesn't matter what it is, the idea is to get a first experience in the "real world". Doing that small job isn't signifying the end of things - the stopping of dancing, but the beginning of a whole new world that is opening up for you. It's actually a great gift that you can start from scratch again.
If you could choose one word, what would express your overall feeling about making a career switch?
Freedom! As a dancer, you try to achieve that idea of flying onstage, defying gravity through physical power. When I am a stewardess or piloting in the cockpit, I am still flying, inspired by this sense of freedom for me. As much fun as I had as a dancer, I discovered that I could find a new passion, just as intense and rewarding through a different career, without the pain. That's such a gift. There is not one passion, but many passions in life.
Lisa Ross-Marcus provides life coaching for dancers at all stages of their careers.
''What do you feel passionate about?'' is a key question in any meaningful discussion about career choices. While those who have a clear sense of purpose are more likely to thrive in their professional roles, there is a distinction between those with high job satisfaction and those whose passion to create change and achieve the impossible is a zealous lifelong project. These are the individuals who stick their necks out, risk-takers who sacrifice security and ease while shouldering the responsibilities of making the world a better place.
Think of mission driven roles such as NGO campaigners, political activists, and health care workers. And let's not forget civil rights lawyers and investigative journalists. What all of these outstanding professionals share is a passionate commitment to social justice and making a concrete difference in the well-being of people and planet.
Whatever you do – don’t let others down
Besides a sense that these professionals live and breathe their passion every day, they all tend to have something else in common: a deep conviction that they must not let others down. While this belief can inspire the qualities of tenacity, responsibility and self-belief, the shadow side of this mindset can drive some self-sabotaging behaviors such as micro-managing, inability to set boundaries and neglect of physical and emotional needs.
Loyalty in the mission driven workplace.
Based on shared values, the positive side of loyalty is that it binds people to a group, an organization or a cause. However, when loyalty becomes the primary standard for action, there is a constant potential to let someone down: Is it your manager who is pressuring you to stay up all night to finish a grant proposal? Your colleagues who don't want you to accept another job offer? Is it an invitation to another international conference? Or is it an entire village in Malawi waiting for you to lead a project that will require a long-term separation from your family?
Numbing out our needs
Of course there are times when rising to the occasion is the right thing to do, and the sense of achievement that follows boosts morale and maintains motivation. The problem occurs when the systematic fear of being disloyal - of letting others down- has a numbing effect on our ability to stay connected to our own needs. When these vital messages are blocked from the command control center in our heads, they find other ways to get our attention. We become irritable and argumentative. No matter how long we sleep we never feel rested. We seem to always feel harried and rushed; we make careless mistakes, and that queasy sensation in the pit of our stomachs is a constant reminder that we have already exceeded our limits. Yet these signals get routinely ignored, fueled by the belief that if others found out the truth, we would be letting them down.
So the question is: How can we avoid the trap of depleting ourselves physically and emotionally, in order to remain loyal to the causes and goals we feel passionate about? The key word here is vulnerability.
Your Personal Alarm system
Feelings of vulnerability trigger the alarm system that lets us know when things have gone too far: when the gap between the demands being made on us and what we are capable of at this moment in time has gotten too wide.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable means recognizing the signals your emotions, your energy and your body are sending you.
Be loyal to yourself
Whereas loyalty refers to ideals, people and organizations outside of ourselves, vulnerability is a recognition of our inner needs and our ability to express them constructively to others. Being tuned in to your own vulnerability can be uncomfortable. It means letting go of the idea of always being strong, being able to cope and being in control. In a mission driven environment, your expression of personal needs could be perceived as undermining the plan, going off message or selfishness. Your loyalty to others may be called into question, and it is important to remember that this is not the issue. What matters here is loyalty to yourself - telling truth about what is really going on with you and trusting that your passion and commitment for what you do will continue to make a difference over time. The decision is yours: Are you going to burn your candle at both ends or be sustained by an eternal flame?
One principle used in coaching is to replace habitual limiting beliefs with fresh helping beliefs. Instead of thinking ‘’I am letting others down.”, you can also think “I am taking care of myself in order to keep my commitment to the cause I believe in.” Or “I can trust others to take on my responsibilities.” Or simply, “It’s OK for me to rest.” Focusing your attention on shifting what you believe about the situation you are in, will help you to stay positive and give you the courage to follow through on making other choices.
Synergizing Loyalty and Well-being
From a practical standpoint, there are several constructive ways to promote your own well-being while remaining loyal to your cause. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Don’t wait until the last minute: Whenever possible, don't wait until the last minute if you need to back out of a commitment. Show your support by giving stakeholders ample time to find a replacement or create a Plan B.
2. Support the new plan: Be willing to contribute help or expertise to the new plan, including coaching the person who will take over (some of) your responsibilities. This is not a moment to become protective or possessive of your own content or role. However, you can certainly request that you receive credit for your contribution to the endeavor.
3. No blame: Desist from blaming yourself or others for your need to pull back. You are not a victim, you are an empowered person asking for help and understanding with dignity. Your positive attitude will be a role model for others.
4. Troubleshoot: Learn to recognize colleagues and direct reports who might be suffering from a loyalty conflict. Show compassion and support for the idea of them looking after themselves and the value of their contribuion to the organization in the long term. Be catalyst of changing the culture in your organization from one which promotes ''loyalty at all costs'' to " support the well-being of our team."
Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach for women and an intercultural consultant.
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.