Mother of one. Associate Artistic Director, San Francisco Ballet
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
As my son has just started University I am answering this within a transitional period; some questions will be answered from a retrospective stance whilst others will be while I deal with 'empty nest' syndrome!
I think the main challenge for me was the level of organisation that juggling my 'double life' encompassed and the lack of spontaneity that I had within my working schedule. I missed responding to artistic projects with immediacy.
I had to live with the concern that others could view my prioritising my son as a lack of professionalism – and yet worse still, was the possibility of not being as 100% present for him as I would like. It was in constant flux and some decisions were easier than others, but I never got comfortable with the 'juggling' situation.
I love my son immeasurably and also care about my work, so the guilt triggers that are present when I am not prioritising one or the other have sometimes been emotionally exhausting.
What support did you feel you had from work when you were pregnant?
None, as a freelance practitioner at the time I had no emotional, financial or practical support through a work place whilst pregnant. My mother has huge angel wings and I could not have managed without her. I also had valuable help from other family members and friends.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
As a freelancer it was obviously impossible to demand any practical structure from an employer. On an emotional level, I would have loved to have had a sense of belonging to a network, financial support, alongside the golden knowledge that I would be welcomed back into the dance community after giving birth – there was no reassurance of this. As a younger mum, this brought more anxiety and panic due to no guaranteed income or acceptance in the future.
Do you think being a dancer made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
Absolutely. After being the 'driver' of my body in the studio, I was eager to control the differing feelings in my body as it was changing, expanding and blooming. I had to learn to take a back seat and surrender to unknown sensations, and enjoy it. Easier said than done!
With regards to my recovery, I was impatient to get back into the studio and for my body to start feeling normal again – to get a piece of 'me' back. There was constant anxiety about losing strength, fitness and potential employability due to my 'changed' physical condition after giving birth. The panic of losing the connections and contacts that I had built over the years pushed me to return to work all too quickly. This was for the obvious financial implications but also for mental and emotion stability. However, due to understanding my physical capabilities in the studio, this knowledge equipped me with an intelligent understanding of my body, to know its limits. In hindsight, I would have enjoyed having the opportunity and structured resources to have taken more time away from work post-labour.
What changed most for you on your return to work?
When I returned to work I never felt in quite the right place again. The guilt that was attached to the dual responsibility, and the balancing act, was crippling at times.
I was concerned that employers would think me less professional for taking my son with me to various jobs and there was a definite fear of losing their respect. This hyper-sensitivity of how others viewed your decision making was acute at times. However, I enjoyed the environment I was exposing my son to when he travelled with me. He learned so much through the creative people he met and the exposure of learning in a creative way – this juxtaposed with the rigid academic grounding that I also found important for his curious mind.
Does parenting help you in your work?
Undoubtedly. My son completes me. My sense of responsibility to him provides a momentous drive to my work. He sparks energy and momentum to my days and stimulates many things to 'dance' about. These magical maternal emotions ignite my choreographic work and the affect of him makes me want to get back into the studio and create! Even though shorter nights can make you weary at the beginning, he has never been an obstacle or made days dormant. In contrast, he continues to enliven all of my creative practice by teaching me new things about life and myself.
Bringing him up single-handedly is never a burden but a force that inspires me creatively every day. I am privileged. It allows me to experience the fullness of life. The nourishment he provides inspires me. When touring, I stay rooted to the spinning world by him.
My passion for working with young people has obviously grown since sharing my days with my son. He has enabled me to be more empathic, more in tune with the new-thinking within their generation. Not to mention helping to hone my fresh collection of tunes for class!
My son is an extension of me. My class and my choreography are also as such. Both help serve to make me be a better and far-reaching human being.
Does dance help you in your parenting?
I am, because of my son – but my work completes me.
I am happy at work. I am my happiest with my son.
When he was younger, I used to say that I had to work away from home and tour so that I could earn pennies to care for him in the way that I wanted. Soon I realised that this was a slightly unhealthy excuse to constantly use. Although on a practical level it was factual, I also thought it was beneficial for him to know that I love my work. The energy it provided was needed and I loved the space to think about him in a creative way. He has told me since that my passion for dance has provided a good incentive for him to search for the job that will satisfy and excite him as much as mine does for me. This is a great example!
Working gave me a manufactured space away from him to miss him, promoted fresh energy to bring home to him, and in turn created a rejuvenated approach to our relationship. Being crazy in the studio helped me to be calmer at home!
He is proud of what I do and talks of me and my projects to his friends. We talk about dance – the world and its people, alongside the artistic content and it gives us so much to share. He comes to rehearsals, performances and meets new people constantly and this has provided him with an inner-confidence to hold a conversation with a diverse range of people.
Dance helped him see a lot of the world. Where possible, I used to schedule my International gigs around his school holidays. I took little money so that he could accompany me as he was an important item to pack in my suitcase to enable me to do my best job whilst away! Through this, he has seen many parts of Europe, China, Africa and the US. This travelling childhood has been vital to him and he has met some fantastic people as a result, and learned first-hand about different cultures and environments.
I intensely love both aspects of my life, and the opportunities to slightly fuse both, brings joy.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
I have found that, in Dance, people find it easier to compartmentalise you. They want you - as a dance practitioner - to lead one thing or another. As a person they want you to 'be' one thing or another. But I enjoy being multi faceted. This works for me and keeps me sane. One fuels the other.
I used to think that as my son got older, I would have more time to prioritise work choices as the apron strings naturally began to loosen. I was very wrong. In fact, I would say that those teenage years are the most vital to be around for. Important issues were raised during spontaneous moments in the kitchen whilst cooking together when he volunteered concerns randomly – and you can't schedule those around planned Skype sessions and rehearsals. Skype has certainly become a god-send over the years but at those fragile, unsettling times when words are inadequate and the hug says it all, you just need to be home – and I was miserable during the couple of times when I wasn't. I put all touring on hold when he turned fifteen (unless he could travel with me in his school holidays) and it was the best thing that I ever did. At fifteen to eighteen years old, that constant academic exam period is a stressful one and I wanted to be ever-present.
Now, with it being nine weeks since my son left for University and being bereft in my empty nest, I wonder where I would be without the passion for my work and the fantastic network of colleagues and friends I have made since my glorious son has been on the planet. I certainly would be much lonelier without an independent world to immerse myself in. I am proud and excited that he is living his life, but I feel as though my right arm has been severed.
As I now embark on a new phase of parenting within my empty nest, I plan to be more spontaneous in my social life and pay my childless friends back for their patience and empathy by never minding that I always put my son first, and perhaps finding some courage back in my artistic risk-taking.
With that said, I have since received a couple of destabilising comments from peers that now my son is at university, it's time to now push my career forwards! I was appalled by the implication. As if my son has stunted me! As if my career has been stagnant! I feel anything but. He has been the driver, and navigated my choices (by having him in my days it meant that I needed to prioritise only the worthwhile projects) and he has been anything but a hindrance - indeed the motivator. I also feel that my work has been bubbling and moving forwards to a place where I am proud, not embarrassed. Each of these people who said this comment, interestingly do not have children. Parenting is joyous and having them living at home with you is over all too quickly.
This period of adjustment where he is not geographically or directly in each of my days, I would like to take a moment to celebrate the life I have nurtured and take a step back and enjoy watching him fly for a while before launching into a 'new phase' in my career. I am fulfilled right now.
My work and the people I meet through it matter. My son's life matters more than anything. I try to stay whole through both.
More About Kerry
Kerry has taught, choreographed, mentored and performed extensively for numerous dance companies and institutions throughout Europe and worldwide, and her experience spans a diverse dance practice spectrum.
Currently, Kerry has been an external assessor for both the English National Ballet School and the Royal Ballet School, and is a regular mentor for the Royal Opera House, ENB, Dance UK, Rambert and Youth Dance England. She is Artistic Director for National Youth Dance Wales 2015 and is director and owner of Kerry Nicholls Dance (on hiatus whilst she is a San Francisco Ballet) and is an Ambassador for PIPA.