For most dancers, retirement is the first death. But PhD graduate Sarah Knox shows that life after working as a professional dancer can be just as rewarding, even transformational.

A woman smiling at the camera in her doctoral regalia.
Sarah Knox's doctoral journey was intertwined with her experiences as a dancer. Photo: Elise Manahan.

When Sarah Knox was just two years old, she already knew she wanted to be a dancer.

“I used to run around the house saying ‘I want to dance! I want to dance!’” Sarah says. “I don’t know where I got the idea from, but what I do know is that I have an innate need to move my body and it made absolute sense to be a dancer.”

By the age of five, Sarah began her formative training in dance, which spurred her professional career. Before she joined the University, Sarah performed with renowned dance companies in Aotearoa, including Footnote New Zealand Dance, Black Grace and the New Zealand Dance Company. Sarah’s dance journey also took her to Japan, and beyond the stage to film and television. After 12 years as a professional dancer, she made the decision to retire.

“There’s a saying that dancers die twice,” says Sarah. “They die when they retire, and when they really die. For many people, being a dancer is their identity.”

But even after retirement, Sarah’s dance career lived on, just in a different form. Encouraged by friend and colleague Professor Rosemary Martin, Sarah returned to tertiary education to pursue a postgraduate diploma (PGDip) in dance studies.

“I never planned to teach, and I didn’t want to go to uni to study, but the PGDip totally transformed my life,” she says. “I fell in love with the university setting and the possibility that I could follow my interests.”

After completing her PGDip, Sarah progressed onto a masters degree and taught undergraduate students.

“I love teaching our students,” she says. “They’re full of ideas, both in life and energy. I also like other parts of my role too. I really enjoy doing a bunch of different things – which is why I love working here. I love teaching and I like doing research. And I like administration!” she laughs.

“I’m also able to engage a lot through some of my roles at the university, with recruitment in high school and local studios. I still am involved with the dance community in New Zealand.”

There's a saying that dancers die twice. They die when they retire, and when they really die. For many people, being a dancer is their identity. 

Sarah Knox

Teaching inspired Sarah’s doctoral studies, and although she has taught various facets of Dance Studies, it’s choreography that’s the focus of her PhD.

“In the university context we teach our students how to make choreography as a collaborative process,” explains Sarah. “As educators, it’s very interpersonal, peer to peer and relational between the teacher and student. But through my own experience I quickly learnt student choreography always begins to reflect their identity, and this is where entanglements happen between students’ creative aspirations and personal challenges, curriculum needs, and industry expectations for art making.”

Sarah’s thesis examines the complexities of teaching choreography in tertiary education as well as the role of identity. Supervised by Professor Ralph Buck (Head of Department, Dance Studies) and Dr Rebecca Weber, Sarah interviewed three female choreography educators.

“When interviewing these educators, and through my own experience, I found that female choreography educators are pushed outside the boundaries of teaching and learning,” says Sarah.

“In a way, we’re often positioned by students as mother figures or carers. And then suddenly we’re in the role of counsellor - it doesn’t happen as much in any other type of dance classes. And it’s not isolated to New Zealand.”

For Sarah, the process of writing her thesis was an emotional entanglement, which saw her working full-time in her role as a lecturer while also studying part-time.

“You don’t stop life while you’re doing a PhD,” she says wisely, “Your PhD isn’t this separate thing that happens in over there in parallel – it’s another tangle with life! I couldn’t have done it with the support of my supervisor Ralph Buck and my family. You really need that support.”

While her thesis is complete now and made it onto the Dean’s List for exceptional research, the journey itself was life changing. During her studies, Sarah became a mum. She also faced tragic losses.

“I lost my father early on in my doctoral journey, and later my partner’s parents also passed away. It feels like my thesis is haunted by these people who have been incredibly supportive throughout my dance journey, so it’s quite a big deal for me to graduate, and I know they would be really proud of me.”

When Sarah handed in her thesis, she remembers feeling a great sense of relief, as well as thoughts of ‘where to next?’

Now that she’s had a bit more time to reflect on the next chapter of her life, she’s gearing up for further research, with her PhD serving as a solid foundation.

“There are elements of my doctoral research that feel really meaningful in regard to the state of the world at the moment and how we support young people to actually be together,” says Sarah.

“That's always been what has driven my research – how do we support people to understand each other? How do we support people to be together? That’s what I care about the most and these questions, in the context of dance, remain a focus for my ongoing research.”

Story by Shreta Rayan

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