'Define your role as you become a parent.'
Father of three (1 son and 2 adult step-children). Artistic Director of UNIT, choreographer, educator
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
The problem for me is working on a project basis, meaning that I’m both away and here a lot. I think parenting for me really seems to be about consistency, and that’s something that I struggle to offer – other than consistency of being reasonably random.
Now, when F was much younger I was particularly consistent. I did shape my whole portfolio career around the family; making sure that I was home at dinner times, making sure that I was there for at least three or four of the school pick-ups and being there the for the majority at weekends, when I could be. But I really wanted to be there, and I knew that by the time he was about 11 or 12, I could start to let off a little bit more and go further afield.
So, I don’t feel there was any sense of restriction, I wanted to be there, I wanted to invest in them and be around them, but that is a real difficulty (if you like) of being a parent working in this way.
What support did you feel you had from work when your partner was pregnant?
People were just excited for me really, but because I was a freelancer I think that people felt that it was something to do with ‘my life’ and that it wasn’t particularly something they had to get overly involved in. I couldn’t tell you that I had specific areas of support for it, I think that people just gave me allowances for being tired, and being a little scatty or a little bit later with email chains or planning of classes. It was kind of a simpler career in the early days. And now, people are reasonably aware that I have a child. They will categorically know if I say, “I am with F,” not to expect anything of me. So, I think people are pretty resilient/open around it.
What support did you feel you had from work when you were on paternity leave?
Because of my freelance lifestyle, ‘paternity leave’ didn’t really exist for me. What I chose to do however was to take loads of time off, and I actually, probably had far more [paternity] time than anyone else would have done. I worked around my wife so I would be around and do loads to support as much as I could. There were a number of mornings that I remember that were particularly challenging on those days that I worked, but knowing I had time at home two days later with F again made everything much easier. Also, we had two step-children (both adults now) as well, so they added into the support of the family. It wasn’t like we were totally on our own most of the time doing it, actually it was being shared between quite a few of us.
I think most of the systems around leave are geared up for females, and perhaps rightly so. I don't remember feeling any support as father other than from my immediate family and friends.
I definitely felt that I wanted to be a key role in his life, so we initially set up 50/50 responsibility, then more with L when she was breastfeeding and then perhaps more with me as he became older. Sadly, L suffered from post-natal depression, so I really kicked-in for quite some time whilst she was in recovery and healing from that. But as a freelancer you just don’t particularly think ‘how will my employer look after me’, you just think, ‘how do I look after myself?’. I always make contingency plans, so it was about me and my business and finding a way to look after the family.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
I had read quite a lot about childbirth at the time, and most of those books are geared up for women and only a couple specifically for men, and I found those particularly useful. I think one of them was ‘A blokes guide to pregnancy’ or something like that, and it was a lot of funny stories, how you can support your partner and about how you can best support your children. In the very early days I remember feeling initially isolated from the process of parenting, a bit of loose end, but once L started showing signs of post-natal depression our roles flipped and I was non-stop parenting.
Do you think being a dancer/ working in the dance industry made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
We were really aware about L’s body initially, where it was, how it was transitioning, and where she would like it to be and how I may or may not be able to support that. We were both really working a lot in the fitness and dance industries, so I think we had a really strong awareness of how I could support her through that. I don’t think we felt at all in the dark about what we should and could be doing. So we just took our time, and went through the exercises as she wanted to, to be able to get back to near where she was before pregnancy.
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
Make your own plans. There is not a lot of support for a Dad initially, best to support your partner through the process. Be aware that you may feel out on a limb or a bit extra, and maybe you have to figure out your roles at the time – what you feel you’re going to share, so you feel that your really equally contributing. Because your time will come. You’re going to share your children throughout your life and it’s going to be backwards and forwards – sometimes Dad’s going to be more important and Mum’s going to be more important, and then both of you are going to be important. So, not to feel terribly guilty at the beginning if it’s one or the other because the time will come. And you will really find and define your role as you become a parent as you’re moving along.
What changed most for you on your return to work?
I love being a parent and I just become more and more aware of being with babies and little people and having empathy for all the parents out there in my classes and work places. You never know what it’ll be like till you do it and it's certainly tough, especially when they don’t sleep.
Does parenting help you in your work?
It [parenting] absolutely feeds everything I do in terms of my creativity; the way I look at the world, the way I create dances and it gives me a really strong connection to people of different ages. If you have young children in front of you and then you work with young children yourself, I've found you can have a really strong connection to what they’re interested in. It made me a much better teacher.
All the [choreographic] work that I make is hugely around the ideas of family, because that’s what I’m passionate about. I think in contemporary dance ‘family’ is underrepresented, so I really wanted to put that voice out there, because of my experience of it, and because of my own blended family it felt like quite a unique place to understand all of that.
Does dance help you in your parenting?
I’m just really creative with my kids and my family, that’s all. And I try to keep things as open as possible. All the things that I feel that are missing in normal education I have in my own [professional] experience, so I try and fill those needs. So, we go to do a lot of cultural things together – not specifically in dance. We could go to the theatre, galleries, circus - anything that can show another version of the world
I think the other thing is that dance has extraordinarily different people in it, and I have always made a point of bringing all of my children to those people (if they want to). If they want to meet somebody new or different they have never met before then we do that.
I wouldn’t say my dance technique has helped them. I’ve taught dance to all of them - they’ve all been in projects at some point and all of them have enjoyed it at that moment, but none of them have particularly wanted to dance. I haven’t pushed them to do that. I think they have to find their own way in life. Find whatever passion it is they want to follow.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Just PiPA that’s all and that feels quite new to me as well. I have perhaps felt a little disconnected from these organisations as the focus appears to be on support of younger children and families. With F being a teenager, I know I still need extra support as a parent especially with key rehearsal times.
In my experience teenagers might not want you to be there all of the time with them, but you have to be there, ready for them whenever they are having a crisis. The questions that come out of their mouths can be challenging, and they will always come in moments you’re doing a rehearsal. Whenever you’re stressed, they’ll pick that up, add it to their own stress and feed it back to you. So, I’ve had a number of times where I’ve had performances, deadlines to meet or funding applications to write where suddenly one child will go down and I've needed to deal with that immediately – there’s nothing you can do.
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
I felt it was really important that I wanted to do this, because I didn’t really see hundreds of fathers in dance. I certainly didn’t see any fathers who were young in dance, and I felt that it was really important to get another voice out there, just to say we're here!
More about Tom
Tom is a choreographer, dance educator, mentor and national leader in community dance practice. He is most known for his unending energy, enthusiasm and ability to work and connect with anyone.
Tom has had the pleasure in leading and supporting work for organisations including: New Adventures, DanceEast, Royal Ballet School, Ballet Boyz, Stopgap Dance, Studio Wayne Mc Gregor, Gecko Theatre, ISTD, Trinity Laban, Suffolk Art link, Dance United, Suffolk University. Tom has also collaborated with artists including: Alex Whitley, Matthias Spurling, Tom Dale, New Art Club, Darren Ellis, Etta Murfitt, amongst others. Tom was associate artist at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and DanceEast from 2015 – 2017, a Clore graduate in June 2017 and a Questlab artist for Studio Wayne McGregor 2018/19.