'As a working parent in dance, this is a topic we need to keep talking about and I would encourage organisations to be scrutinising what procedures they have in place for working parents who are employed by them in any capacity. '
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
Working self-employed as a dance artist in this industry is particularly challenging. There are physical aspects such as getting the body back into shape and feeling like you can re-connect with the physicality of dance and then there are practical things like unsociable hours (this includes evening and weekend work), having the creative brain space and co-ordinating child care. I went back to work teaching just one class per week, six months after having my little boy. Like many people living in London, I don’t have family close by so my Mum travelled down from the Midlands once per week to look after my son for the two hours my class took place. There was also the logistics of breast-feeding, and trying not to worry that he would starve whilst I was away from him for those few hours. After 9 months I started back with my evening class. To help me the organisation I worked for agreed to put both my classes on the same day which meant I only needed childcare across the one day. As my son grew, he started to attend nursery which in London is nearly £100 per day. I had to balance out what I was earning self-employed vs what I was paying in childcare. As lots of work is often project based there was increasing difficulty in having to change his days every term which became impossible and meant he lacked consistency. In the end I only agreed to work two days per week and just had to hope that work fell on those specific days. [Dance Mama note: Laura was freelance Dance Artist for Rambert and Project Manager for English National Ballet when she became a Mum.]
What support did you feel you had from work when you (your partner was) were pregnant?
I was mounting a production at Sadler’s Wells and preparing a number of other performances. I had assistants to help me for the rehearsals periods and individuals within the departments I worked within were supportive. The companies I worked for were paying me on a self-employed basis so they had no responsibility to me in that sense and I was very much self-managing my own time although I obviously had deadlines to meet in terms of the shows themselves.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
The biggest challenge is the responsibility of the employer if you are self-employed. What responsibilities do they have? We work in an industry that has a fluidity in artists coming and going and the nature of the work often means we aren’t on PAYE. I also think there maybe could have been some more support offered on the return to work specifically in terms of childcare and support to get your body back to full fitness.
Do you think being a dancer/ working in the dance industry made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
I felt like I needed to get back sooner rather than later. This was partly because I wanted to get back into the creative space but also because I was aware of not wanting to drop out of the loop. It’s difficult when you are self-employed because you don’t have the security of a job to go back to so you don’t want people to forget about you. I don’t remember considering my recovery. I think I was too busy worrying about a new baby, earning money, organising childcare and the general madness of logistics that come with having a family! Nearly three years on I don’t feel like my body is back to where it was prior to having my little boy. Equally I have seen dancers in the profession come back after six weeks to get back into training, that wouldn’t have been an option for me.
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
It’s all so individual. What suits one, might not suit another. I would say try not to worry. When I returned to a more usual pattern of working a year after my son was born, nothing had changed, and I felt like I picked up where I had left off. There was also a surprising transition of work now not been my sole focus. The time away gave me space to reflect on my career and I realised I had been running manically from one job to the next, working seven days a week, evenings and weekends and now I questioned more why was I doing this. Having a baby has made my work choices since then more considered and I guess I now always ask the question is this worth the time away from my son. I learnt to let go of things and filter out anything that felt like it would put too much pressure on me.
If you were expected to dance postnatal (either by yourself or your employer) how did you approach your recovery?
This is a difficult one. I wasn’t dancing as a professional dancer on stage but in returning to teaching I was expected to lead technique classes, teach phrases of repertoire and often for prolonged periods of time. I continued going to the gym as much as possible, (which was also challenging with sleep deprivation and childcare logistics) but in honesty I just got on with it and gradually got stronger over time. My own self was pretty low down on my priority list!
What changed most for you on your return to work?
Everything and nothing. I fundamentally was changed from having my son but everyone still perceived me in the same way and I guess you still want to have that persona as that is your profession. As a teacher in the context of my work, it can often feel like a performance and even on the days when I’d been up for half the night, I still had to be energetic and vibrant and physical. It was hard but I think it also allowed me to tap into that part of myself that was me before I also became ‘Mummy’. I picked up some freelance work that enabled me to do things at home. The producer on the project also had a child so we would have meetings with the kids which was refreshing. I did have a few occasions on that project where I would be trying to have a work conversation with a venue and my son would be howling in the background. This didn’t look very professional and I remember thinking I’m not doing a good job at work or as a Mum. My husband also took annual eave from work to come and help me when I was on tour for longer periods of time. It wasn’t an ideal scenario in any sense. Those few months became a turning point for me and I realised that I needed to separate my work life from my home life. This has definitely influenced my career choices since then.
Does parenting help you in your work?
I think becoming a parent gave me perspective and allowed me to re-address the work/life balance. The responsibility of motherhood also helps in general terms of been the one on charge, the decision maker, finding solutions. I also think it filters into the creative aspects of my work.
Does dance help you in your parenting?
Certainly in doing improvised performances for my son which he finds hilarious! Dance has been part of my life since I was young so I think it must help me in some ways because it is part of who I am.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
When I look back over the last few years, I can see that there were really mad, challenging times. Are these any different to what other working parents deal with, I don’t know. I have since shifted my career to be more office based as my son likes routine and he benefits from his set days at nursery. Equally I benefit from knowing what I am doing on a weekly basis. This compartmentalisation of my work life and home life has enabled me to be clearer with who I am when, and feel like that when I’m at work I can give 100% and when I’m at home I can do the same for my son.
As a working parent in dance, this is a topic we need to keep talking about and I would encourage organisations to be scrutinising what procedures they have in place for working parents who are employed by them in any capacity. This doesn’t have to mean paying for maternity leave but could be more practical in terms of childcare, help with recovery, catch up meetings and how work is scheduled for those artists.
More about Laura
Laura began her career at Rambert leading on the youth dance programme, touring nationally as an animateur and teaching on the Dance for Health programme. She is the Artistic Director of Quicksilver, Rambert’s youth dance company. In 2007 she joined English National Ballet as Learning & Participation Officer and went on to become Creative Associate choreographing and directing their flagship programmes. She has worked for Disney, Ballet Boyz, Richard Alston Dance Company and Sadler’s Wells amongst others. Laura is currently Head of Creative Programmes at English National Ballet leading on their professional artist programme Choreospace, Schools Link and Dance for Health programme. Laura has a BA in Dance & Arts and Cultural Management and an MA in European Dance Theatre Practice.