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.
Author: Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach and intercultural consultant. Her primary focus is empowering women to lead in organizations or as founders of their own enterprises.