Balancing Acts: Dancers and Their Experiences With Motherhood

By Gavin Larsen

Christina Paolucci was the executive director of New York Theatre Ballet and pregnant with her first child in December 2011. Up against two deadlines of vastly different natures, right after having her labor induced she zipped back to her desk to finish up payroll. “At that moment, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to do this — maintain the 24/7 schedule of being either in the studio, at my desk, or on tour — and have a child at the same time. I thought it would be easy, but it was not.”

Terence Duncan, Alexander Duncan (at 8 months) and Christina Paolucci at Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, 2012, photo by Richard Lerner

Terence Duncan, Alexander Duncan (at 8 months) and Christina Paolucci at Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, 2012, photo by Richard Lerner

This is not an unusual realization for new parents. Our workaholic culture praises devotion to one’s job, and this goes even further in the arts, where one’s profession truly is their “life’s work.” Indeed, in dance, an artist’s work is inseparable from her soul and body, underscoring the professional and personal importance of fully realizing both. Becoming a parent is not only a natural milestone in human life, it is an experience that deepens and enriches one’s artistic existence, whether that means creating, dancing, or serving as a teacher or administrator (which require thought and vision as creative as a choreographer’s). But in the dance field, the issue of maternity and, to a lesser degree, paternity has a history of being emotionally fraught with negative connotations and littered with obstacles.

George Balanchine’s attitude toward pregnancy and maternity implied that a dancer with children had a loose commitment to dance (though he did tolerate certain of his favored dancers’ families). While such overt pressure from a director would not fly anymore, many issues that more indirectly discourage parenthood have not changed. George Balanchine did not hide his disapproval of dancers having children. His attitude toward pregnancy and maternity implied that a dancer with children had a loose commitment to dance (though he did tolerate certain of his favored dancers’ families). Doubtless, such overt pressure from a director would not fly anymore, but many issues that more indirectly discourage parenthood have not changed. Dancers still deal with issues like taking parental leave, juggling child care, physical recovery from childbirth, and health care.

Dance companies, organizations, and schools (from the neighborhood ballet studio to university dance programs) are perennially on unstable ground, and being employed by one doesn’t confer the security, income, or benefits of a job in many other fields. A large percentage of dance professionals don’t have the relative comfort of being attached to an organization at all, instead working project to project as independent freelancers in an unending cycle of grant applications, proposals, and hustling for work. The concerns about starting a family are universal: Am I ready? Can I afford it? How will I work and be a good parent — who will take care of my baby? These common questions gain complexity when they are compounded by issues specific to our field: the physical demands (dancing during and after pregnancy); job instability (will there even be a job to return to?); lack of insurance coverage; and feelings of guilt from stepping away from the first “baby” — one’s creative work — even for a moment. There are answers to these questions, as evidenced by the notable increase in the sheer number of dancers, choreographers, and directors who have chosen to become parents over recent decades. As this tide slowly turns, the increasing acceptance of parenthood remains not quite the norm, though it’s not an anomaly anymore, either. Why? It’s possible that examining the issues surrounding maternity in dance can put a spotlight on some of the fundamental fault lines that exist throughout the field, and, indeed, across our entire economy.

The experiences of parents in dance vary widely, hinging on factors like employment status (freelance vs. employee, owner/director vs. employee), income stream, geographic location, the personal viewpoint and empathy of a director or board, and even lucky timing.

Logistics and Finances

Christina Paolucci and her husband, Terence Duncan, both former ballet dancers, thought they had it all planned out: They waited to start their family until they had good health coverage through the community college where he taught dance, and she had retired from performing. But it swiftly became clear that for Paolucci, a two-hour commute with a stroller on the subway from Harlem to NYTB’s midtown studios was unsustainable. “I was nursing, bringing [the baby] to the office, taking him backstage, greeting patrons … it became intensely complicated.” Fortunately, a solution presented itself when the board of Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance in Connecticut asked if the couple would be interested in taking over from the retiring directors. It was an offer they couldn’t refuse. The setting — a suburban neighborhood of families — was enticing (as was the five-minute commute), and the opportunity to work full time outside the proverbial rat race was a relief. They moved to Ridgefield with eight-month-old Alexander and while they love their new lives, Paolucci says she struggles with the logistics and mentality of parenting and the dance world: “Even with my very good situation, which I love, our profession just takes up a lot of time. There are times when we have 12-hour rehearsal days preparing for a concert — and I’m not able to separate my job from my parenting, so there’s a ton of guilt. But the days of waiting for half an hour after rehearsal for a student to get picked up are over — when I’m done with my job, I want to go home and be with my kid.”

Keira Hart-Mendoza photographing her Uprooted Dancers, photo by Maggie Picard

Keira Hart-Mendoza photographing her Uprooted Dancers, photo by Maggie Picard

That effort to reconcile the intense personal investment in both work and child is magnified by the fact that now more than ever, making a living in dance means not just performing, teaching, or choreographing, but doing all three — plus administering and directing, too. Keira Hart-Mendoza does just that with her company, Uprooted Dance, in Washington, D.C. When she became pregnant with Sebastian, now nine months old, Uprooted was on a roll, preparing for a jam-packed season of performances, and Hart-Mendoza’s choreography was catching attention. So she worried about feeling “trapped” by her child’s needs, and that his birth would signal the end of her own dancing. But as the director of her company, Hart-Mendoza had the relative luxury of making her own rules, delegating administrative tasks to company members and supporters, and bringing her newborn son to the studio during rehearsals. The pressure of trying to succeed as a creative artist, run a business, and protect precious time with her son, however, became the catalyst for her decision to shift careers. She’s now in an intensive Pilates training program on weekends, takes on personal training clients at night — and still puts in 10 hours a week on administrative work for Uprooted Dance — allowing her to spend days at home with her son. This career move may offer more flexibility, but she’s cognizant that it comes at a cost to her dance company. Admitting that she’s passed up on project applications and grant proposals for sheer lack of time, she says, “The needs of being an independent artist are compounded by being a mother. I have to prioritize and focus on things that are ‘sure bets’ instead of taking risks.”


Nicole Wolcott in Larry Keigwin's "Triptych," courtesy Nicole Wolcott

Nicole Wolcott in Larry Keigwin’s “Triptych,” courtesy Nicole Wolcott

Nicole Wolcott, independent choreographer and co-founder of Larry Keigwin & Company, is well aware of the artistic cost of bringing a child into the mix while trying to survive as a freelance dancer. She initially thought she’d scale back on her work after having her daughter, Laurel, but found that even the profundity of motherhood couldn’t eclipse her artistic drive. The dual pulls of child and work were equally strong. She realized that to be a good mother, she had to be happy — and that meant having dance in her life. “It is very difficult to commit to a full-time career and be a mom, and to work in this field you need to be single-minded. But I can’t do that and be a good mom. I want to raise my daughter and to do that; I absolutely have to have dance in my life to be a happy mom.” Achieving that balance against stark financial realities has meant cobbling together an existence for herself and her family through creative planning, compromise, and no small measure of frustration at the plight of dancers and choreographers with children. She explains, “I think the hardest thing is I can’t take class regularly at all. A class costs roughly $17 and child care is roughly $15 an hour, so with travel time I’m paying as much as $75 per class. And I can’t take some jobs if I don’t at least break even with child care, though I do take some just to stay viable, connected to my work, and leverage my career.”

As self-employed artists, Wolcott, Paolucci, and Hart-Mendoza were lucky enough to either have health insurance through their husbands’ employers or individual plans, but other financial concerns are still a huge factor. Wolcott says everything she earns goes toward health insurance and child care (and mentions that her C-section’s out-of-pocket costs nearly drained their savings). As she sees it, “Every dance-parent I know either has family available as caregivers, a husband earning a good income, or works in academia. It’s the only way to make it work.” Hart-Mendoza cites the “astronomical cost” of full-time childcare as a major reason why she’s moving into work she can do on nights and weekends (side-stepping costly day care).

Although freelancers are largely on their own in seeking insurance, larger dance companies, schools, or universities are more likely to provide coverage. A hopeful thought is that as the country adopts the Affordable Care Act, with its provision for maternity care, having children will become more financially feasible. Even the larger dance companies, schools and universities that do provide coverage rarely include maternity leave of any sort, but there are some happy exceptions to this issue of special importance to dancers. Clearly, a dancer simply cannot perform her job until the day she delivers, and then return a few weeks later. (And many would argue that no one should be expected to do that. It’s thought-provoking to consider the radically different attitude toward maternity in countries like France, with its generous government-provided childcare and the outright expectation that new mothers spend lengthy time at home with a newborn before returning to work.) How dance companies deal with pregnancies varies widely, and many existing policies may only be informal. Miami City Ballet’s Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez, a mother of two, was adamant that when two of her principal women became pregnant, they both be kept on salary. She describes her personal experience of becoming a mother while dancing at New York City Ballet as the basis for her convictions. “Parenting is a completely natural thing to do and is a normal part of being human. I don’t want it to seem unusual for dancers to have babies,” she said. “Having a child changed my life and made me a better dancer — it really did — so I think it’s important, and I want to support my dancers.”
Despite this encouraging policy at MCB (it should be noted that the company is not contractually obliged to keep pregnant dancers on salary), it is clearly not the norm. Lopez acknowledges that any company’s adoption of such a policy would ride on its director’s own beliefs, values, and empathy: “I think it has to be a personal decision of the artistic director, just the way you do your programming or select your dancers. It has to come from the heart, because you really feel and understand it, rather than be a policy that is forced upon you. I can go to a board and say, ’I know from personal experience how important it is that our dancers not have to make the choice between career and family. I know how important it is, because I did it.’”

Of course, no matter how good-hearted the director or board, few organizations can justify keeping a non-working employee on salary. But time away from the studio need not make a pregnant dancer feel like a useless commodity. A middle-of-the-road compromise enabling a pregnant dancer to continue to receive at least partial pay is the practice of offering so-called “light duty” work. This can be a beneficial arrangement for both dancer and employer. The dancer has the psychological reassurance that the company cares enough about her future to want to keep her on board (and encourage a return to dance after childbirth) and learns valuable skills in a new area of the art form, maybe even laying the groundwork for a future career transition. In return, the company’s management fosters the loyalty of the dancer and gains a new employee, albeit a temporary one, in a variety of possible capacities: administrative assistant, wardrobe, teaching, or rehearsal help, for example. Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Alison Roper began working as a development assistant at OBT when pregnant with her second child. For her, the time spent in the development office was doubly valuable — she’s segueing into the position full-time after her retirement later this year.

Physical Issues

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Alison Roper danced Odette/Odile while 5 1/2 months pregnant. Today she is a mother of two and continues to dance, photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, courtesy OBT

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Alison Roper danced Odette/Odile while 5 1/2 months pregnant. Today she is a mother of two and continues to dance, photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, courtesy OBT

As a mother of two, Roper is one of an even more rarified group of dance-parents, proving that although the physical struggles for a new dancer-mother are, for obvious reasons, a top concern, with the right knowledge and a plan of action, they are completely surmountable. More and more is discovered all the time about how to safely dance while pregnant and how to best return afterwards. Incredible stories abound of dancers performing well into pregnancy: the evidence of the intense mental and physical strength of dancers includes Roper who performed Odette/Odile 5.5 months into her pregnancy. Still, returning to a career where one’s body is essential to one’s paycheck can be a tangled emotional web and adds yet another layer to the pressures of time and financial management. Freelancers see every passing day they aren’t dancing/choreographing/teaching as lost income, but post-partum plans for exercise often don’t pan out for sheer lack of time (“Every free minute I get, if I’m not balancing the books, teaching class, changing the toilet paper, I’m with my son,” says Paolucci). As both dancer and AD of Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, Marlena Doyle worked her way back onstage with less-demanding rep just four months after having her daughter, Olivia, via C-section. She feels lucky to have an office where she can nurse, can decide it’s okay to bring her daughter into the studio (and recruit dancers to “babysit” while she’s rehearsing), and her company is so tightly knit that she had full support from the dancers, executive director, and board. Being the boss of a small non-profit, however, meant she could only take three weeks off to give birth (“I basically worked non-stop because I wear so many hats”), had large out-of-pocket expenses for childbirth despite insurance through her husband’s health-care savings account. After putting Olivia to bed, Doyle works until midnight on company business. As one of the many daily compromises Doyle and all new mothers make between their two “children” — one a human being, the other an artistic endeavor for which many people rely on her — she isn’t able to take class as much as she would like.

Artistic Growth After Childbirth

Those compromises run the gamut, affecting everything from mundane daily life choices to the overarching scope of a career in dance. Every mother emerges a different woman after giving birth, and those psychological and physical changes are impossible to accurately plan for. A steely conviction to return to the stage may seem unimportant once a newborn is in one’s arms, and a dedication to tireless fund-raising for an inner-city dance group may pale in comparison to the appeal of working a stable, 9-to-5 job in a quieter location. While no one can judge another’s choices, nor safely say why they are made, it is clear that a large number of artists and dance professionals either leave the field, move offstage, or curtail their work as a result of the daunting landscape they face when considering a family. In a frenzy to earn money, Wolcott steeled herself to take on a full slate of teaching work when her daughter was newborn, almost “losing my mind,” she says. As a result, she wasn’t able to choreograph at all until an unexpected donation from a supporter, concerned that she was losing artistic momentum, enabled her to focus on creating work instead of writing grants.

But Gabriela Poler-Buzali, executive director of the Limon Dance Company, is leaving New York for a position at Texas State University in Austin out of frustration at the unrelenting responsibilities of her job. Before having her son, Max, she put in 13-hour days at the office, and was back at it two weeks after he was born. As ED, she was always “on call” for anything that might come up, and did not feel comfortable bringing a child to work. These dueling stresses spurred her decision to leave. But how could these scenarios be different? What can be done to improve the options for women, in particular, so they are not forced to compromise artistic success in the name of raising a child?

These questions mirror the national conversation on women in the workplace, the “glass ceiling” and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “leaning in,” and the answers being proposed are similar. But the dance field has special pre-existing handicaps. Legislation requiring employers to provide at least partially paid family leave, sick leave, and affordable child care would be helpful, but there is a shortage of full-time, well-paying dance jobs. Those cobbling together a living as freelancers need protections as well, or at very least, an improvement in the average pay offered to dancers, choreographers, and teachers, that could make it feasible to earn a living and support a family.

Those at the top of their fields, whether a principal dancer in a major dance company, executive director, or corporate CEO, have more options and flexibility to make family and career choices than those at the middle or bottom — meaning early career dancers or independent artists in particular. The “choice” to have a child too frequently hinges on fear of losing visibility in the quixotic, ever-changing dance scene; of losing ground in the race to get back after time off; and of having to leave the field altogether to support a child.

Lourdes Lopez of Miami City Ballet

Lourdes Lopez of Miami City Ballet

But the benefit to the field as a whole when more within it become parents is real. Countless stories abound of dancers returning to the stage after childbirth as new artists — richer, more mature, with an unquantifiable new approach that lends depth to their dancing, a sense of greater purpose, perhaps. Lopez’s description of her own newfound perspective and artistic growth as a dancer after the birth of her daughter, Adriel, is inspirational, and the same would be true for a choreographer or teacher. Some positive trends are encouraging. A slow but notable increase in female artistic leadership around the country offers hope for more artistic directors with viewpoints like Lopez’s, whose commitment to supporting pregnant dancers stems from her personal experience, and whose stature in the field gives her strong credibility. Ever-growing knowledge and advancements in physical therapy assure dancers they can come back from childbirth stronger than ever.

As the number of prominent dance figures having children increases, they become role models who inspire others to go for the trifecta of fulfillment in artistry, professionalism, and family. (Dance Magazine’s recent “Women’s Issue” profiled several dance moms.) More and more, dance-parents are being championed. What is needed now are practical support systems to make those stories more common, and more happy. Dance companies can’t offer paid maternity leave like Miami City Ballet does if they are constantly worried about making payroll. Freelance choreographers won’t spend time writing a grant proposal when the cost of a nanny would eat up any funding they might get. Women have described contract discussions in which their mention of child care costs as a factor in their salary negotiations was improper and irrelevant. The temptation to leave the field is great for many parents, but thankfully, many others decide to fight it out. As more and more follow their lead, the benefits will flow to all in the dance field, as well as our culture at large. For now, Wolcott says, “It is like any dancer’s story: it varies for every person. You can’t be in it for the money and you have to be creative to make it work. The joy of dance and my child sustain me. I have no regrets.”

Gavin LarsenGavin Larsen danced professionally with Oregon Ballet Theatre, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on teaching, coaching, and writing about dance. Her articles and essays have been published in Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and the Threepenny Review. She lives in Portland, Ore., where she is on the faculty of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.


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