Can a professional dancer maintain her career and be a mom, too?
For a long time women in dance were discouraged from becoming mothers and having a child would have ended a performing career. As gender inequality issues rose to the surface of public consciousness in the 1960’s, ballerinas like Allegra Kent began to challenge the notion that a professional performance career and motherhood were mutually exclusive pursuits. However, it is within only the last 10 to 15 years that support from dance companies and organizations has made it possible for more mothers to continue and pursue their careers in dance.
Balancing any career with motherhood has its challenges but mother/dancers certainly face some unique concerns and questions. To produce a picture of what it is like for mothers who are also professional dancers, I spoke with two dancing moms, one a ballet dancer, one a contemporary dance artist and choreographer. In this first installment, we discuss pregnancy and what it is like to dance and perform while expecting.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Sara Webb trained at the Academy of Nevada Dance Theatre and the Harid Conservatory. She joined Houston Ballet in 1997 and was made a principal in 2003. She has performed leading roles in the company’s classical and repertory works, including her favorites, the title roles in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella and Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries. In 2007, following a c-section for the birth of her son Joshua, Sara was able to return to class after 4 weeks and was back to work full-time after 7 weeks. She is now 16 weeks (4 months) pregnant with her second child and will perform this Mother’s Day weekend in a three free performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre. For Sara, motherhood was always part of the plan. “Ever since I was a little girl I had two dreams. One was to become a ballerina and the other was to be a mom.”
Toni Leago Valle received a B.A. in Theatre, specializing in dance, from University of Houston in 2000 and at 30 embarked on a professional dance career. As can be typical for a contemporary dance artist, her occupational resumé is diverse. She performs with many of Houston’s top contemporary dance companies and teaches at University of Houston (UH). As an independent choreographer, Toni has staged three evening-length works and, entering into a new phase, her dance company, 6 Degrees, will debut on May 13 on a split bill concert alongside Amy Ell’s company Vault. Toni is also Project Coordinator for Dance Source Houston, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting dance and, in addition, handles administrative, production and promotional services for several local art organizations. In 2005, just two weeks before she delivered her son, Dante, Toni premiered a solo, inspired by Japanese Butoh dance, titled I Am Mother. She too was back to rehearsal after 7 weeks. “I was amazed how fast my body remembered how to go upside down. It was like welcoming an old friend.”
All In The Timing? Deciding To Start A Family
“You’ll be able to dance a lot longer than you’ll be able to have babies,” Toni was once told by choreographer, Karen Stokes. Though she has now found this to be true, (“I’m 41, still going strong.”), Toni had a late start in her professional career and thought she had to get in as much dance as possible before having a child. “I didn’t believe I would be able to dance after having a baby; that having both a child and an active dance career would be too demanding.”
Sara and Toni acknowledge that many professional dancers choose to retire from performance before having children. “It takes an amazing amount of energy to maintain a home and family when children are small. It’s a 24 -hour job.” Reflecting on what she has witnessed in contemporary dance, Toni says, “I think most mothers choose their families with the idea that they will return to performing as their child gets older. Then they find it hard to make their way back.” In ballet, a return after long absence is even less likely. Says Sara, “You have to want both. Not everyone wants to have kids while they are dancing.”
Sara feels supported in her decision to become a parent and attributes much of this to the Artistic Director of Houston Ballet, Stanton Welch. “Stanton comes from a family of dancers. He watched his own mother have children and then return to the stage. He understands, supports, and encourages dancers to have families and return to dancing. ”
The guidelines for maintaining a healthy pregnancy are generally the same whether a mother is dancing or not — plenty of rest, awareness in terms of over-doing it, pack healthy snacks and drink lots of water. Sara also suggests that a dancer must “be smart in how you rehearse and communicate with those that you are working with.” Toni adds that continuing to dance during pregnancy was important for her mental health as well. “Without dance, I might have killed my husband, then gone on a shooting spree,” she jokes.
When asked if performing while pregnant requires any special precautions, Sara cites only the safety measures one would normally uphold in dance. In fact, for her it’s about making sure her partner is comfortable with “partnering a pregnant lady.”
Both during and after pregnancy, mothers deal with monumental changes in the body. Sara returned to dance even after her c-section.”I wasn’t expecting one and I had to work really hard to find and strengthen my core muscles again.” In a blog post for En Pointe with Houston Ballet, Sara writes, “I started walking around my neighborhood, Joshua in tow, every day. After two weeks, and having a little more bounce in my stride, I went to the gym. I tried to do some crunches and pilates moves – unbeknownst to my doctor who would have killed me—without much success. Yes, I was crazy! But by week four I was feeling stronger (thanks to Amy Ell at Houston Gyrotonics for helping me find my core again).”
A Unique Pas de Deux
I have offered my own pregnancy tips and touched on how it felt for me to dance and teach while pregnant in an earlier article, Baby On Board. However, every pregnancy is different, as Sara corroborates, “I am sicker, more tired, and carrying this baby a lot lower. While I am calmer this second time around, there are always those concerns that never go away with pregnancy.”
Every mother is different also and dancing while pregnant is a singular experience.”I found pregnancy itself to be a bit alien and not at all normal. However, performing live while pregnant has been a memorable experience,” Toni explains. Naturally, she channeled her experiences into her work as a choreographer. “Knowing nothing on real mothering, I researched Mother and Fertility Goddesses from various cultures. I wanted to give an essence of mothers- not the kind, loving, care-giver we normally associate with mothers, but the strength behind the mother- the person who would kill you if you threaten her child, the mother who will starve so that her baby will live. This was the mother image I understood and related to.”
Sara embraces dancing while pregnant in a contrasting, but equally poetic and meaningful way. “When you dance it is always just you, one person, alone in your art. Sure, there are partners and other dancers that could be with you, but you are still one dancer. Dancing pregnant I am two. I always feel that little spirit with me, whether kicking, pushing, or just being. It is a unique experience that is hard to put into words. I also find that little one gives you extra strength, pushing you forward when the fatigue wants to pull you back. You become a team. I look forward to telling each of my kids someday what it was like to dance with them, a unique pas de deux that not all dancers get to experience.”
Part Two of mothers in dance (on managing a career and family) tomorrow on Dance Advantage!
On May 7, 8, and 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m. Sara Webb will perform with Houston Ballet at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. The free performances will feature three diverse works by three of today’s most sought-after choreographers. Call 281.FREE.FUN (281-373-3386) for further ticket information or visit www.milleroutdoortheatre.com.
On May 13-15 and 20-22 at 8:00 p.m. Toni Leago Valle will premiere her company 6º in a joint performance with Amy Ell’s Vault at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, Houston, TX, 77002. For more information, visit www.amyell.com or www.6degreesdance.org.