Finding Balance as Dancer and Mother
Is it possible to be both dancer and mother? This is a question that many dancers will contemplate at a certain point in their lives. As if being an artist (and likely holding a day job) weren’t already all-consuming, how does one magically produce extra hours in the day for the demands of a family? Something’s gotta give. From sacrificing precious opportunities to perform, audition, or choreograph, it seems there are aspects of being a dancer that one must give up in order to have children; after all, it’s no longer simply about you. But there are also many rewards to having life revolve around a wee one: becoming more selfless, gaining perspective on what matters, and discovering new depths for love and for one’s art. The decision to have or not have children is deeply personal, and in celebration of Mother’s Day, we are honored to share stories and reflections from some of the dancing mothers in our community.
What are some misconceptions about being a dancer/mother?
“That we can’t be dedicated artists because we are dedicated to our families. It is obviously harder to dedicate as much time as I’d like, but being a mom has showed me how much I love the arts; it’s pushed me to be more passionate. I’m learning how to make the time that I do have for creation truly mine.” – Anna Conner
How has the landscape changed for dancing mothers?
“It’s not just in ballet. In our country, people wait much longer to have children now. I’ve been astounded listening to some young women explain why they’re not supporting Hillary Clinton; I get the impression that they have no idea what women went through to achieve the opportunities they have now. They don’t understand how difficult it was… Nowadays, there’s not such an expectation that you’ll dance to the exclusion of everything else in life. Many dancers successfully juggle having children with careers.” – Francia Russell
Did you always know you would be a mother?
“No, I honestly didn’t think about it much growing up. It was all dance, all the time, and if I could do it again; I wouldn’t change a thing about that. I’ve taught and mentored from a very young age, however, so it seems like the natural next step is having my own padawan. And boy, am I so thankful I did. Having my child has made me a better, less self-involved person and made me grow up. Thanks for that, John!” – Xaviera Vandermay
“I always wanted children. Family is the most important aspect of life, and it is reflected in my art. I would not be creative if I didn’t have a family to love or be loved by. They feed my heart and creative soul in a way that is immeasurable.” – Marlo Martin
Did your boss or choreographer approve of you having children?
“Balanchine didn’t approve of any of us getting married or having kids. He was a keen observer of life. He knew that when I had a baby, I was not going to be as committed to my work. (At that point, I had retired from the stage and was working as his ballet master). He was right but it seemed very unfair at the time. And now, having been an artistic director myself, I understand more where he was coming from. I’m always happy for the dancers when they become pregnant, but maybe one of them was going to be considered for a great part that they won’t be available for now…” – Francia Russell
How did your expectations of motherhood compare to the reality?
“Before I got pregnant, I thought that I would have a willowy body and look thin and elegant my entire pregnancy. I thought that I would have the baby, and suddenly be Mother Earth—dancing and breastfeeding simultaneously, happy and healthy. Really, I was in pain most of my pregnancy. I had to stop dancing, suffered from postpartum, lost all flexibility, and basically just stopped identifying as a dancer. My son is two-and-a-half now, and I am finally starting to accept my new body, get back into dance, and find a balance that works for me and my family.” – Kristen Legg
“I remember thinking that my body would never be the same, that I wouldn’t be as physically capable as I had been before I gave birth. Fortunately, the body is really amazing and resilient, and only two years after having my son, I feel just as physically capable, if not more!” – Jasmine Morgan
Did anyone judge you for wanting to have a child?
“No. When I was dancing for Flemming Halby’s company (Halby was former Principal Character Actor with PNB, as well as Principal of the company’s Seattle school), I remember being in class at the barre, and [Halby] knew that Ray and I had been trying for a baby, and then he said, “Did you do it?” And I indicated yes, that I was pregnant and he just sort of smiled and patted my belly.” – Jenny Hillock
“I have felt numerous times that I was not taken as seriously as an artist because my time is divided by my family and my art. I felt I was being judged, that I was not a ‘real’ artist because I had not given up all else for dance.” – Marlo Martin
How have you juggled dancing and motherhood financially?
“With our first daughter, we juggled the parenting responsibilities and found many trade-based babysitting exchanges. In our 30s, when we had our second and third daughters and my husband transitioned out of nonprofit work to more stable income, I became the primary parent. How was I to launch a dance company and pursue this neverending propulsion to make dance? Fortunately, I was introduced to the Fremont Abbey Arts Center. I came on board to launch my company, receiving rehearsal space for a trade of hours I worked at the center. I scheduled rehearsal and work around nap times. There were rooms adjacent to the rehearsal space, and when nap time ended, the dancers got used to having a baby, and then toddler roaming around the space. To stay in shape outside of rehearsals, I found running the block with a baby monitor outside our front door to be a solution; I got really good at giving myself my own barre and yoga practice; and eventually, I found a gym membership with a small monthly fee for childcare, which was tremendous for my training. I am dancing better now than I was 10 years ago…” – Karin Stevens
Why is being a mom and a dancer a natural pairing?
“What is natural about it is how I use my dance training and my teaching experience in my interactions with my son. I use my kinesiology studies to help him with movement development. I use my experience teaching creative movement to help keep him focused on a task and to explore new ways to move his body. Also, after he goes potty, I have him make a big second position and plié so I can wipe his…” – Kristen Legg
How has being a mother changed your work, or your perspective on your work?
“…When I get a review that cuts at my heart or another rejection to add to the pile, I am always reminded through my partner and my kids that there are bigger things going on here in this life, and that beauty always rises above the worldly problems.” - Karin Stevens
“Kids become your number-one priority. Sometimes their needs trump all of your other commitments whether you like it or not. Prior to having to kids, I wouldn’t have let anything interfere with rehearsing or performing. The show must go on no matter what. Once you have children, you can’t always control your time and personal desires. If your kid needs you, you have to be there for them.” – Sara Jinks
“It made my dancing better. I was taking class at PNB and Francia Russell was watching me. Afterward she said, ‘Woah, motherhood must really agree with you.” I think I had a motherhood glow.” – Jenny Hillock
“I’m pretty adamant about not bringing concepts of children and motherhood into my choreography. But I sure do have a whole new understanding about love, sensitivity, and hope that I did not have prior to having kids. And these are always recurring themes in my work.” – Eva Stone
“It gave me a fuller understanding of life. Dancers are so self-focused, which is one of the reasons I stopped dancing early in my career and went to college. When dancers have babies suddenly they have something else to focus on besides the correct diet, injury prevention, or whether they are feeling happy or sad. Nothing takes you out of yourself more than having a child, and this can also be fulfilling as an artist—to be able to see the world in more colors than were there before. Some women absolutely flourish. They often no longer have the same performance anxieties. For others, having a child is so all-consuming that they expand as people, but not necessarily as artists.” – Francia Russell
“As my son grows to be the same age as many of my young dance pupils, being a mother makes me take that extra to time to really think about what approach is the thoughtful, helpful, and sound approach to dance education. Would I want my child berated and humiliated like so many of us have been in the rehearsal or class process? Would I want an adult standing on him or forcefully pushing him into stretches? Hell no.” – Xaviera Vandermay
“Becoming a mom, and the fact that I will be a mom for the rest of my life has changed my perception on life in ways that I’m not fully aware of. Finding the balance of putting my son first and keeping recognition of my individuality is a challenge, but possible and important.” – Jasmine Morgan
“What have been some of the challenges of being a mother while maintaining a career in the arts (or in dance)?”
“Everyday, all day. This is a nonstop challenge. We are torn between wanting to go live in the woods with the family, living off the land, overlooking a beautiful lake, and this life of living and creating art in the city. Everyday, we are getting closer to living in the woods.” – Anna Conner
“I was rehearsing for Pat Graney’s Vivian Girls when I found out I was pregnant. I finished a rehearsal segment with her while at about six months pregnant, then had my daughter during a multi-month break from rehearsals. I performed at the premier of Vivian Girls when Lola was only three months old. It was a crazy time. I was in the thick of trying to figure out how to raise a child, totally sleep deprived, nursing, and my body looked and felt completely unfamiliar. I also had to use childcare earlier than I would have anticipated in order to make it through the rehearsals and performance. Looking back, it seems kind of insane that I did that, and I will probably never feel good about that particular performance because it was kind of an out-of-body-and-mind experience. But I was determined not give up dancing to be a mom. In hindsight, It would’ve been less stressful to give myself a little more time to recover. But I really wanted to perform and I really wanted to tour. Touring that work was also a challenge. I dragged my kid and partner along with me to a few locations at the beginning of the tour, but that proved to be so difficult and distracting for me and the company and really not fun for my spouse. We opted for them to stay at home for the second half of the tour.” – Sara Jinks
“In the first months after Lola’s birth, I was completely consumed by my new role as ‘mother’: the overwhelming love and powerful need to be with her and care for her constantly. I knew it was going to take an extraordinary amount of work to get my body back into dancing form, and between the feedings, diaper-changing and general day-to-day life with an infant, it seemed like there was little-to-no time to spend getting ‘me’ back. It wasn’t just about the lack of time; it was also my own resistance to leaving my baby for any extended amount of time. Coming to terms with my impending return to work was one of the most difficult times for me in my motherhood journey thus far.” – Sarah Ricard Orza
“It is a daily challenge to believe in the value that I bring to this world. Often times in both (dancing and motherhood), I am fumbling through the dark, trusting that something beautiful that matters is evolving in the lives of my kids and in the art… of course, there are many times when both areas, parenting and art-making, are the most joyous heaven-on-earth experiences.” – Karin Stevens
What has been crucial for you in making it all work?
“…Knowing when to give up, when to give in, and when to give more.” – Marlo Martin
“It may sound cliché, but for my family and me it’s all about living life one day at a time. Life with a child is always changing and there is so much unknown that comes with being a full-time professional dancer and a full-time mother. I try not to get bogged down in the what-if’s and long-term plans or worries. I’ve had to learn to be much more go-with-the-flow. Kids get sick, nannies quit—it’s all constantly in flux! Also, a sense of humor is a must. It can all get pretty intense, so being able to step back, breathe and at the end of the day, and laugh at the crazy can be so cathartic!” – Sarah Ricard Orza
“Develop a support group before your pregnancy that can gently force you get back into dance after baby. You might not need it, but if you do, having someone there to remind you how much you love movement and artistic expression is very important.” – Kristen Legg
“…Family help if you can get it, an army of babysitters, great neighbors, and the spare student ballerina sitting in the hallway willing to play with our kid as you work. Patience, commitment, tenacity, and either caffeine or baklava: both of these always give me a boost when I’m feeling low. And always remember to say thank you to those who help you.” - Eva Stone
What’s a memorable moment from being a dancing mom.
“Balanchine and I sometimes walked home together and I asked if he wanted to come to our place and meet the baby (Christopher). He said OK, and he came over and went into the bedroom. He peered down into the crib for a moment with a quizzical expression, looked up and said, “‘Well, not as bad as I expected!” Of course, Christopher has heard that story a million times. It’s part of family legend.” – Francia Russell
“When I was giving birth to my first baby at 28, I was in such great shape from dancing that my body, well, my muscles didn’t want to let Adam go. The doctors said this happens sometimes to athletes; my body just tried to suck the baby back in because my muscles were so toned. That was a miserable 21 hours.” – Jenny Hillock
What advice would you give any dancer who is contemplating motherhood?
“Sorting out priorities is the hardest thing. You have to give up something. As you get older, you tend to have regrets. I have no regrets whatsoever about my work, I did absolutely the best I could. But I do have regrets about not being with my sons—the many times I was working in Milan or St. Petersburg (setting Balanchine’s work). In hindsight, I would do it differently. You have to be prepared to be tough with yourself and stick to your priorities.” – Francia Russell
“Do not sacrifice one for the other. Find your balance. Design your life. It will all be fine. It will actually be wonderful.” – Marlo Martin
“Luckily, you are in a field dominated by women, and many of them have children, too. They have a great understanding and empathy for you and your life choices.”- Eva Stone
Do you have any advice for mothers returning to the stage?
“Be gentle with yourself! It’s so easy to stand in front of that mirror and feel frustrated and burdened. Keep in mind the amazing work your body has done to give life.” – Sarah Ricard Orza
Did you want your children to dance?
“John’s school, Licton Springs K-8, is fortunate to have a partnership with PNB’s Discover Dance outreach program and J loved working with Ms. Rochelle. Watching him up there on stage, so in the moment and so proud, made my week. I’ve always told him if he wants to train, mama will sign him up. But it is important to me that he chooses it. My parents didn’t force their interests on us as children; we were allowed to pick our own hobbies and passions. I look to replicate that in the rearing of my mini.” – Xaviera Vandermay
“We didn’t really want them to: it’s a tough career for many reasons, including financially. Ethan just took classes so he could be near us. Darren regarded ballet with horror! But Christopher was born theatrical, and we realized there was no getting over it.” – Francia Russell
“If they were interested in dance, I would send them on a different pathway than my own. There was a lot that was unhealthy about the rigors and pressures of the classical ballet training I received as a kid. I would make sure they studied somewhere where their bodies were accepted and cared for as is.” – Sara Jinks
“Yes! 1. He loves it; he loves watching me dance around the house. He loves going to the studio to see the modern dancers. He loves moving to music. 2. The discipline you can get from a well-taught dance class is a life lesson that no child should be without.” – Kristen Legg
So can you have it all—dancing and a family?
“Yes and no. I kind of feel like I have it all in the sense that I’ve had an active dance career and two wonderful kids who I wouldn’t trade for anything. But there are trade-offs with every choice we make. Sometimes I wonder (without regret) where I might be in my dance career now if I hadn’t had kids.” – Sara Jinks
“YES. It might not look like the career you envisioned as a young dancer, or it might. But you can absolutely be successful in dance with a family. Just keep knocking on doors and don’t let people forget that you are still an artist. - Xaviera Vandermay
“You cannot have it all. You can have what it is, and you can have possibilities just like everyone else. There is no having it all, ever in life. That is a ridiculous goal.” – Marlo Martin
“Dancers ask me all the time how I managed to ‘do it all.’ The truth is that Kent and I were partners in everything, in ways that are more normal now than they were then. That is, to me, the essential element: a partner who shares responsibilities at home — in our case, also at work. Single parents who manage successfully should be considered great heroines and heroes.” – Francia Russell
Any other words of wisdom?
“Having a daughter has been the greatest gift to me and my husband John. It’s been a scary, sleepless, hard, sacrificing journey, but we are so thankful for her. I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world. Sometimes I do find myself feeling really guilty about missing my friend’s shows, events, or parties, but I have to remember not to be so hard on myself. My family is the most important thing in my life. Spending time together as a family and shaping my daughter into a confident, loving being is where the party is at.” – Anna Conner
“If you have children, you might get to have grandchildren!” – Francia Russell
“I am so, so happy with the choices I made in life. Dance is not in the forefront of my life right now, but I know that it is there for me and I still love it. I just have something (someone) that I love more right now. Being with him, dancing with him, is what makes my heart sing. That’s OK.” – Kristen Legg
Thanks to all the dancing moms that shared their stories for this article. They include:
Anna Conner, Seattle-based dancer/choreographer; director of Anna Conner & Co.
Sara Jinks, Dancer for Pat Graney; producer of Buttcracker and Ten Tiny Dances 2015
Kristen Legg, previous instructor at eXit SPACE; Artistic Director of Red Legg Dance
Marlo Martin, Artistic Director of eXit SPACE and badmarmarDANCE
Jasmine Morgan, Co-Founder of Relay Dance Collective; instructor at Dance Fremont!
Sarah Ricard Orza, Soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet
Jenny Hillock Sexton, Founding Member of Spectrum Dance Theater
Karin Stevens, Artistic Director of Karin Stevens Dance
Eva Stone, Producer of Chop Shop: Bodies of Work and Artistic Director of Stone Dance Collective
Francia Russell, Founding Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet
Xaviera Vandermay, Artistic Director of 3rd Shift Dance