Gotta Dance – Stepping Off Stage: BODYTRAFFIC’s Lillian Barbeito talks about her performance retirement


October 13, 2013 at The Broad Stage, Lillian Barbeito, co-artistic director of the successful LA-based contemporary dance company BODYTRAFFIC, had her final on-stage performance. 
Gratefully, she was able to make this decision on her own accord, and with optimism and grace, after a 22-year long performing career.

I first met Lillian Barbeito, co-artistic director of the successful LA-based contemporary dance company BODYTRAFFIC, in 2008 while I was working at CalArts. She was hosting Nina Wollny who was teaching a Countertechnique master class for our dance students. Since then, my path with BODYTRAFFIC has crossed many more times. Several weeks ago, I received a voicemail from Lillian inviting me to the company’s show at The Broad Stage. She mentioned the particular relevance of the show – it was to be her final dance performance. She was retiring from the stage! I knew I had to talk to her further and share her story with you all. She faced what all dancers have to face at some point in their careers – the final show. No matter what end of the spectrum you are on – whether you’ve had to face this already, are staring at it in the eyes as you read this, or have hopefully another 15-20 years before you ever have to contemplate this reality – each of us have a tie in to this subject.

Lillian and I met near Loyola Marymount University, on her break from her full teaching load there. Over lunch we discussed her recent changes, her hopes for the road ahead, and the path that shaped her into the artist and teacher she is.

This October 13 was the grand finale of her 22-year long performance career, which started off in New Mexico. After graduating from The Julliard School in 1998, she stayed in New York (after a small stay in Europe) to live out her dream of dancing professionally. By night she would work the vast restaurant circuit as a hostess, so her days could be available for auditions and training. She worked mostly as a freelance dancer, working gig-to-gig and biding the time in between with nighttime eatery work. For her first few years, she booked gigs but still had unmet goals and auditions that didn’t land. She lends that experience to her own feelings of dissatisfaction due to conditioned thinking about what “qualified” as successful. We agreed that all of us have a preexisting notion of what it means to be thriving. Maybe this seed gets planted from a mentor or a famous role model we want to emulate. But these expectations may keep us from identifying our true victories or never feeling happy despite all of our hard work. Lillian shared that once she figured out that the key lie within herself, and became thrilled with the process of dancing, she felt more balanced and at ease with herself and her artistry. As a “whole person,” she was more attractive to choreographers and audiences and that’s when her performance career really took off.


Lillian’s move in 2001 to Los Angeles with her husband brought her to an unfamiliar performance landscape. With the help of a colleague she interviewed and landed a teaching position in the World Arts and Cultures program at UCLA. Since her days as an undergrad she would teach classes at the local studio on her trips back home while on break. She always knew she wanted to be a dance teacher thanks to the influential role her dance instructors always had on her, in addition to her parents. Teaching at the college level introduced her to the challenge of teaching through a syllabus, which is a different teaching environment from professional classes or studio classes. She loved the puzzle of developing a course outline and relaying information over a period of time versus packing everything into a master class. As her roots grew in Los Angeles, she also began teaching at Loyola Marymount University.


As several great articles describe, Lillian met Tina Berkett, also an East Coast transplant, in ballet class soon after moving to LA. Their vision was to create a strong company that would perform high quality dance despite many warnings about the obstacles and difficulties of having a contemporary dance company in Los Angeles. This gave rise to the inception of BODYTRAFFIC in 2007, each woman acting as both performer and co-artistic director, commissioning choreographers to set work on the high-caliber troupe. The company has been a conduit for Lillian and Tina to wear many hats, all of which they’ve been more than happy to put on though switching back and forth between roles has presented its challenges. Their similar tastes and inspirations have made them a dynamic duo, on and off the stage, each even taking on motherhood at nearly the same time.


So with a toddler at home, co-running an increasingly thriving professional dance company, and a growing teaching schedule, Lillian had rightfully been feeling the pressure of her multi-faceted life. She knew something had to come off her load, and performing kept ending up on the bottom of the pile of the things she was able to put her energy into. She had contemplated retiring from performing about a year and a half ago and had announced it to the company then. She became known as ”Cher” amongst them for her comeback to work with some irresistible choreographers this past year who were commissioned to work with BODYTRAFFIC. At Jacob’s pillow this summer, she began thinking about retirement again. It was sealed with the offer for a full time teaching contract at LMU. With BODYTRAFFIC’s expanding schedule and her commitment to providing consistency for her students, the decision became cemented to Barbeito in July. Still in disbelief about the news, Tina asked her co-hort if she really was going to quit about a week before she made her final performance at the Broad.

In the few weeks before and since her final performance, Lillian has had a lot of emotions about her decision. Most importantly, she has built up her professional scope and has many pathways to pursue and continue to share her passion for dance. When asked if she will miss performing, she has an interesting and informed perspective on why people get so “hooked” on being on stage. “Maybe people get a little confused as to why they love performing so much. It’s a consolidated amount of time where you are forced to be extremely present” she states. She suggests that you can have that euphoria no matter what you are doing. She’s found a lot of excitement from choreographing and watching it on stage from which she’s found herself even more nervous about than if she was performing it herself. From teaching, she has received ten times the reward from her students with what they’ve done with the information she’s been able to convey to them.

Her plan is to delve further into her goals and dreams. She looks forward to developing the outreach programs for BODYTRAFFIC to bring dance to populations that would otherwise not have access to it. Additionally she’s excited about being the concentrated outside eye for the company, and elevating their performances from the front of the house as director. “Each aspect of the process is magical. The beauty of being the person who is responsible for bringing people together to witness something worthwhile for people to attend is fantastic, and very rewarding. “


While her exploits still keep her completely under the dance umbrella, she offers that “a total departure from dance can lead to the discovery of other underlying gifts that may have been lying dormant and need to be cultivated.” On the other hand, she has known many dancers who have taken on successful second careers in very different fields, but then they never take class or dance again. “Why go cold turkey?” she posits. “Once a dancer, always a dancer. I’m going to take class until I’m 80 years old. If I can still walk I’ll still be in dance class!”

I hope that in reading this you will find inspiration and camaraderie in another dancer’s story. In a path that can be so hard to navigate, it is uplifting to realize and remember how many choices we really do have. Make everything a dance, and your life will be a happy one.

copyright 2013 Kate Fox