'...dance taught me how to work hard in the face of exhaustion, how to be organized and efficient, how to cultivate community, and how to prioritize self-care and health. All of these traits have helped me in my parenting.'
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
The most challenging aspect for me has been learning to say no to some professional opportunities in order to prioritize the needs of my family. Because I chose to have a baby at an older age than many other women (my son was born when I was 37), my career was already well-established when I decided to get pregnant. At that time, in my professional roles, I prided myself on being the colleague who could always be counted on to commit to new projects, take on additional responsibilities, and produce successful results quickly. As any first-time mother knows, after the baby is born, everything changes. Your time is no longer your own, your schedule belongs to your baby. This is as it should be, but no one warned me about how significant a change this would be, so I struggled in that first year as a mother to acknowledge and accept my new life and to negotiate the various roles I play in it. Even now, having been a mother and a working person for three years, I have to force myself to say no to opportunities that would take me away from my family for an extended period of time because I know my son needs my presence and I want to be there with him and my husband. I am fortunate to be able to work in positions that do not necessitate much travel, however, I love to travel and have new experiences, so it is difficult for me to turn down exciting possibilities. Nevertheless, these sacrifices are completely worth every twinge of longing or discomfort; I know my child will only be young once and I don’t want to miss the chance to be the best mother I can be to him.
What support did you feel you had from work when you were pregnant?
Fortunately, I had a very easy pregnancy, so I really didn’t feel I needed much support. I kept dancing throughout my pregnancy and was even working out on the day I went into labor. It was extremely helpful to have colleagues who had recently experienced pregnancy and early motherhood. Not only did they provide helpful advice about pregnancy and motherhood, they also served in an advocacy capacity for me to colleagues who were less open to hearing and supporting the needs of pregnant women and mothers. It was the postnatal period during which I felt support was most lacking. Aside from FMLA policies, the US doesn’t support pregnant women and new parents in the way it should, nor do most US companies. I did not have the benefit of a maternity or parental leave and went straight back to working within two weeks of birth. My supervisor informally offered to let me teach in a distance capacity, which helped me be able to stay home with my newborn, but other challenges emerged later as a result of this informal assignment. My institution has since improved and clarified some formal policies, but I don’t feel they yet offer adequate support of new parents.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
Yes. Any parental leave would have been better than none. FMLA is available to full-time workers in some US companies and was available to me at the time, but it is an unpaid leave, so I could not afford to take it. Also, it would be helpful to ensure operational policies reflect the needs of dancing pregnant women and mothers specifically because our work is physical. Access to childcare for working parents is absolutely essential and this needs to be made an urgent priority in US companies and government. Finally, providing education to supervisors and senior colleagues about the needs of pregnant women and parents in the workplace would, I think, go far in starting to shift cultural biases, prejudice, and marginalisation. Finally, funding sources specifically for mothers in dance would provide wonderful and needed support.
Do you think being a dancer/ working in the dance industry made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
Yes. Because we dancers are trained to be in tune with (seemingly) the most miniscule shifts of our physical, mental, and emotional states, I think our sensorial capabilities are heightened. I was hyper-aware of the bodily changes that occurred throughout my pregnancy and as I recovered from a pretty brutal delivery. Almost four years later, I still negotiate changes in my pelvis and lower back that I attribute to pregnancy and delivery. At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised by how malleable my body was throughout pregnancy and how powerful I felt during that time. It was the recovery period that made me feel less capable as a dancer for about six months postnatal.
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
Take leave. And don’t assume anything, document everything. Don’t be afraid to advocate for what you and your baby need and enlist the help of others who have gone before you to add emphasis to your needs. You only get one chance to bond with your baby, so a few uncomfortable conversations to get what you need, I think, are worth your trouble. Some mothers want to return to work immediately as I did, and that should be a respected, completely personal choice, too. In this case, again, make sure whatever you arrange with your employer is documented so you’re all on the same page about expectations of each other.
If you were expected to dance postnatal (either by yourself or your employer) how did you approach your recovery?
I wanted to dance ASAP, but had some stitches due to tearing, so waited until about six weeks postnatal. I started slowly with one weekly rehearsal and some low-impact cardio and gradually increased intensity and length to a regular class and rehearsal schedule by about 5 months postnatal. My body didn’t feel bad, but I lost A LOT of strength in my pelvis and abductors in particular, and I had weird issues with my neck and shoulders because of improper babywearing and poor alignment and posture during breastfeeding. Also, my lower back has never felt the same again – more tightness and pain since giving birth that I will probably need to rehabilitate professionally.
What changed most for you on your return to work?
In addition to the bodily changes I mentioned above, the major change was in my personal approach to my work. I love my work more than ever because it is such an important part of my identity and I find it so rewarding. However, I have become quite good at setting boundaries on my availability and do not feel the slightest guilt about it. I realised I had not been living a balanced life prior to giving birth, but now, I feel I am being proactive about integrating my work and personal life.
Does parenting help you in your work?
Absolutely. Parenting has helped me better relate to my students and to sense how their development as young adults on their own for the first time is an important consideration in my teaching and mentorship of them. I am more forgiving of colleagues who disappoint me and am more willing to provide flexibility to the dancers in my company, the students I teach, and my colleagues. Also, I no longer keep quiet when I perceive something to be unjust and I attribute this to my commitments to my son which include using my privilege and power for the benefit of others who have less of it, and doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Finally, parenting has helped me manage my time in a way I never thought possible. Professionally, I have been more productive as a parent than I was before having my son. I no longer waste a moment of my time because I no longer have the time to waste!
Does dance help you in your parenting?
Definitely! A career in dance has consistently taught me to hustle, in all the best ways: dance taught me how to work hard in the face of exhaustion, how to be organized and efficient, how to cultivate community, and how to prioritize self-care and health. All of these traits have helped me in my parenting. I also believe that because I have prioritized healthy diet and exercise in my dance career, I was better enabled to have a successful pregnancy in my late 30s and keep up with an active little one in my 40s.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Sadly, no, I am not aware of many resources specifically geared to dancers. This gap in literature and resources is one of the main reasons I decided to write a book about mothers working in dance. Dancing Motherhood will be published in Routledge’s book series on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I find my colleagues across the country to be my best resource throughout my pregnancy and during this motherhood journey. Additionally, I loved reading other women’s birth stories in books and hearing their stories in The Birth Hour podcast. I also recommend podcasts specifically geared to working mothers such as The Double Shift.
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
No, but thank you very much for including me on your fantastic site and thank you for the work you are doing for working parents in dance!
More about Ali
Ali Duffy is a President’s Excellence in Teaching Professor, Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor of Dance at Texas Tech University. She is the founding Artistic Director of Flatlands Dance Theatre. Her first book, Careers in Dance: Practical and Strategic Guidance from the Field, was recently released by Human Kinetics. Her new book, Dancing Motherhood, is in progress and under contract with Routledge. She serves on the Cultivating Leadership Committee of the NDEO. She holds a PhD from Texas Woman’s University, an MFA from UNC Greensboro, and a BA from UNC Charlotte.