Mother of one. Senior Lecturer of Dance at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Choreographer, Teacher, Dance Artist
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
Firstly, I feel fortunate to have found a way to be a working mother within the freelance dance world. I have a portfolio career of both international and national work mainly as a choreographer and teacher. I became a single parent when my daughter was around 1 years old and this was tough and definitely brought an extra challenge. I found a way to continue to work internationally and travel with my daughter until she was around 2 years old, as it became more apparent, she needed daily routine, friends and socialising the similar aged children. At this point she was also more independent, so it became more ok for me to travel for short trips without.
I feel there’s an ongoing challenge and practice of finding a balance between work and home life - being there enough for my daughter at the same time being available for the development of my work. In easing my own personal pressure of achievements in my freelance work I have to find a greater kindness to myself of doing less so that I can be more available for my daughter. Carving out time for personal development, for example having time for my own physical practice – in the beginning felt impossible, but now it’s becoming easier.
What support did you feel you had from work when you were pregnant?
I fell pregnant with an IUD in place and I had 2 previous miscarriages, which meant that I was at high risk of losing my baby. I didn’t feel so inclined to move as I felt fearful. At first, I didn’t know what to do with my immediate freelance work as I was booked to teach many weeks of Flying Low, a floor-work technique that’s not easily adapted to a pregnant body. My employer at the time, London Contemporary Dance School, was very supportive and allowed me to adapt what I was teaching to support my pregnancy. They found me alternative roles and together we found solutions to supplement my work. I felt very fortunate to have had this experience and support.
Alongside my dance career I was also a co-Director of café/art space. In my other role, even though I was a Director, I found it more challenging to adapt what was previously expected of me to suit my pregnancy. During business meetings for new partnerships and expansion for the café I felt anxious and fearful that I would lose the opportunities due to my pregnancy and maternity leave. It was a taste of two different worlds.
I didn’t have the desire to stop working after having a child. I was interested in enjoying my pregnancy and maternity leave while also having the opportunity to come back to my work. In hindsight I was hesitant to slow down and take the full maternity because I was subconsciously concerned my work wouldn’t be there. There’s also an added challenge when you have your own business as it’s not always straightforward to not be there. I found a way. I took maternity leave (not the full 9 months) but I was able to bring my daughter with me whenever I needed to do some work. Even though working with your child next to you has it’s challenges it also made it feel ok. If I were to take a project, I also made sure that I had a chunk of time off either side to spend with my daughter. I felt more support in the dance world, maybe this is due to our connection to our body, level of empathy and general openness to supporting family. There was also a financial worry about how I could survive as I was reliant on picking up extra work as and when I needed it. I found a way with the statutory maternity pay and help from my family.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
I felt there was a lack of information of how other dancers approached pregnancy and parenthood.
I immediately searched for information online and found stories mainly from ballet dancers but very little on other forms of dance, specifically contemporary dance. I reached out to other friends but realized this wasn’t talked about a lot in the dance community nor did you see a lot parent’s bringing their children into the studio. I did find a blog, Mums On Stage, by Irene Cioni and this really helped to read someone else’s experience of pregnancy, parenthood and performing.
We need more resources of how to support yourself, more transparency.
This was not something that was talked about or seen during my training. I feel that in the past either you chose not to have a family, or you would stop dancing in order to have a family. I’m happy to see now there are more and more mothers (and fathers) who are continuing to dance during pregnancy and after. It shows that there’s some development and more support for this to happen. I think the more we see mother’s dancing and adapting practices the more it inspires others to do the same. It gives a sense of infinite possibilities to our craft.
I remember I was doing a choreographic job just before my daughters 1st Birthday and I was able to bring her with me (not always the easiest thing but it worked for this project). I was leading the group with her strapped to my back and I had a lot of other mothers came up to me to say how inspiring it is to see that this is possible. The more we can be transparent and adaptive the more things are possible.
Do you think being a dancer/ working in the dance industry made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
Yes. Immediate knowledge of the body, interest and curiosity to learn about what happens during this experience both physically and mentally. Equally, I felt it made me lazy as I thought I knew how and what to do but I actually didn’t…
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
A year is a really short time. When I was thinking about taking a year off for maternity leave, bear in mind I was freelance, it felt like an eternity. I began to think that my momentum would disappear, that my work would not be there, that no one would come to my workshops or shows. A close friend/colleague reminded me that 1 year is nothing and it’s a beautiful opportunity to have with your child. Almost I needed that reminder that it was ok to take time off.
If you were expected to dance postnatal (either by yourself or your employer) how did you approach your recovery?
I had a job booked but didn’t confirm until after I knew my daughter and myself were healthy after the pregnancy and there were no complications. Luckily the job allowed me to delay signing my contract until after birth and we were all ok. The job was due to happen when my daughter was 5 months old, so this felt achievable. During the first months after the birth I had a change in my personal relationship that caused a lot of trauma and stress, paired with a large loss within my independent café business causing even more stress – all while I was trying to have maternity leave. The combination of these events along with being a new parent consumed me and I was unable to dedicate a lot of time to my physical recovery. A few months prior to my first job I knew I needed to get my body moving again. I focused on simple things that I could do at home and with my new-born such as walking, building more core strength, simple movement patterns. Honestly, I was exhausted, so physical prep was not always achievable. On top of this I also needed to dedicate time to getting my artistic mind active again. This seem to happen in the middle of the night. I found this even more challenging as my brain was focused on diaper sizes and sleep schedules. Somehow, I did it, it helped to remind myself of my practice before birth and revisit this rather than try to create something new. I always believe we’re more capable than we think we are.
What changed most for you on your return to work?
It was beautiful to be back in the studio, working with my body, being creative, working with a team. I felt privileged to have this opportunity. I was also able to bring my baby with me (with help) which meant that I could continue to breast feed every few hours and I could still be there for my baby. This was possible from the support of the organisation. Breast feeding and physically intense dance work is not always the best combination. So I had to practice adapting everyday to how my body felt more than I would normally. I was choreographing and teaching so I was able to have more control of the amount of physical work that I did.
I felt that my body and mind weren’t completely ready to do this but they became ready in the moment. My imagination of my what my body could do before pregnancy didn’t match with what it could do 5 months postnatal. I needed rediscover my body and accept the stage that it was at. I’ll never forget when I was demonstrating while teaching and my body collapsed, it definitely reminded me that I was 5 months postnatal and to take it slower. I learned to be able to say ‘Right now, this is what I can do and that’s ok’.
Does parenting help you in your work?
Definitely! I think it’s made me more patient, more empathetic, and almost softer with people. It’s incredible to watch the development of a child and I feel this has made me understand our developmental movement patterns deeper. It’s given me access to imagery linked to my daughter and her world, a greater understanding of how we learn, the effect of our use of language and tone, the list goes on!
Does dance help you in your parenting?
Yes. I regularly remind myself to dance my way through parenting especially in the tough moments (it’s easy to forget). Recently I’ve decided to play more music at home and dance more, which has inspired my daughter to dance more and be free with her body.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Mum’s on Stage: Irene Cioni’s Blog – I found this very helpful when I was pregnant.
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
I became a single parent when my daughter was around 1 years old and this was tough. I decided to continue to work as I love what I do and it gave me such joy, a place to be myself beyond my role as a mother, a social connection with people and a continued purpose. I continued to take international work and I brought her with me. Through this I learned how to negotiate contracts/packages that supported me to bring my daughter, this was the first thing that I brought into negotiations. This wasn’t easy but I’m so happy I did it! One is never completely ready to have a baby and I don’t believe it always comes at the right time, there’s no right time. Every baby is different and every mother has a different experience, it’s about riding the wave that comes. We all have strong intuition, it’s about be able to trust. By living my experience, I found that it’s possible to be a single parent and continue to have a career in dance! I hope this can .
More about Leila
Leila is a London based dance artist, who creates work that is high-energy yet nuanced and abstract in its choreography, drawing on personal experiences focusing on themes of identity, gender and the cultural interface. Collaboration is at the heart of her process and Flying Low/Passing Through techniques support her artistic practice. Leila’s full length work Family Portrait(2015), unravelling the constructs of family, was presented throughout the UK. New work Curl of hair is set to launch in 2020. Leila was a Wild Card artist of Sadler’s Wells curating, This Way, That Way (2015), at Lilian Baylis, an evening of dance, music and art. Recent commission 3 fingers at arm’s length created during Artist in Residence at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (2017) was nominated for ‘Outstanding Choreography’ Hong Kong Dance Alliance Awards 2018. Other commissions include London Contemporary Dance School, Verve and East London Dance.. She has worked with artists including David Zambrano, Crystal Pite, Thomas Lehmen, Wendy Houstoun, Vicky Amedume, Jasmina Krizaj & Nina Fajdiga.Since receiving a place on David Zambrano’s 50 Days Flying Low and Passing Through (2010), Leila is now one of the internationally certified artists teaching this technique, and has led the development of this approach in the UK. She is Lecturer at London Contemporary Dance School and has taught throughout the UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, United States and South America. From 2012-2020 she collaborated with Angolan visual artist Isaac Carlos as co-founders of Muxima, an Independent cafe in Bow, East London, regularly producing art, music and performance events, awarded several times ‘Best Cafe in East London’.