Dylan (left) and Colin (right) are already getting used to life backstage. Kyle Froman
Chatting with NYCB principals Ashley Bouder, Abi Stafford and Maria Kowroski about dancing through motherhood.
Throughout New York City Ballet’s almost 70-year history, very few dancers have returned to the stage after having a baby. Yet the company is having something of a baby boom right now, with three principal dancers currently diving into motherhood while upholding their careers. In March, writer Jen Peters sat down with Abi Stafford and her 8-month-old Colin, Maria Kowroski and her 4-month-old Dylan, and an 8-months-pregnant Ashley Bouder to discuss motherhood in the life of a principal dancer.
Jen Peters: What was early pregnancy like, and how did you tell the company?
Ashley Bouder: I was preparing Swan Lake when I found out. I had to tell the costume department, and then I told Peter [Martins]. He had the best reaction, just so happy! I was also getting sick during rehearsal, so I told John Stafford, who was rehearsing me, so we could end early some days or take it easy.
Maria Kowroski: The company was in DC when I was two months pregnant, and, of course, I was performing in a white leotard. My chest was really big and I kept thinking, I hope no one can tell! I kept closing my dressing-room door and taking naps. I finally told Peter because casting was going up and I didn’t want to do Concerto Barocco because it’s too hard (and in white)!
Abi Stafford: I had to do an extra Dewdrop during Nutcracker the day after Christmas. I was almost thinking I should just tell them so I wouldn’t have to. But it was almost time for my three-month checkup, and I wanted to be sure everything was fine before I told anyone.
JP: Did anyone ever assume you weren’t coming back to perform?
AB: I think everyone here knows you are coming back, but I’ve had outside people say, ‘Oh, so you’re done dancing?’
AS: Or they say, ‘Are you going to teach now?’
MK: I’m glad it happens to you guys too. Since I’m old, people always say that!
JP: What’s your time frame for postnatal recovery?
MK: I am planning to start back the first week of spring season, so five months after delivery. It’s really individual; the company is very supportive.
AS: I had Colin in July and came back for Nutcracker. I scheduled outside gigs to give myself a goal of four months off. I was really grateful to have my first show in Maryland, not New York!
AB: I’m maybe overly ambitious. I’m hoping to take two months. My friends tell me the longer you stay home, the harder it is to go back!
JP: How did you approach class during pregnancy?
MK: I took class until nine months, just barre and a bit of center. I didn’t wear my pointe shoes because I was afraid of breaking my ankles, since I was so heavy!
AS: I performed until four months, took class through five months and then stopped. I was afraid to overexert myself, so I just enjoyed some time off. I did absolutely nothing!
AB: I still do everything except jumps, and am hoping to wear my pointe shoes the whole pregnancy. I stopped jumping around six months because Marika Molnar, our director of physical therapy, watched class and didn’t like how it looked for my back.
JP: Did you continue with full extensions, too?
AB: Yeah, I can’t bend backwards, but my arabesque somehow got better? My hips don’t feel any looser, though; my side extension feels tighter!
AS: I never felt any looser either!
JP: How did you deal with the physical changes?
AS: I definitely had some body-image issues. I didn’t really accept what was happening to my body until about six months. Afterward my doctor said to be patient and trust that everything will go back.
MK: It was hard not being able to fit into costumes. Watching the scale go up at the doctor’s office was strange. But as long as the baby is healthy, that’s what matters.
JP: What did you do to get back in shape?
MK: I started with Gyrotonic, to get everything strong again, and bike and elliptical for cardio.
JP: Any pregnancy cravings?
MK: I ate healthier than normal, a lot of salmon and eggs for protein. Towards the end I really lost it, though—all I wanted was chocolate and cheese.
AS: Me too. Towards the end I’d get Frosties and McFlurries. And white chocolate!
AB: I was the opposite. Right away I only wanted sweets. I would have a pint of ice cream for dinner while performing Swan Lake! It was ridiculous. Now all I want are big salads and Mexican food.
JP: Coffee during pregnancy?
JP: How do you find balance between work and baby?
MK: I’ll start with sporadic performances. Things are happening quickly—sitting up, rolling over—and I don’t want to miss out.
AB: I’m excited to have my fiancé bring her to the theater during performance nights. She can hang out with all the girls backstage.
[Maria looks at Dylan lying on his stomach in a frog position.]
MK: Ahhh, he has great turnout…bad feet, but great turnout! That’s okay, we don’t want you to dance, anyway!
JP: I was going to ask how you feel about your kids dancing…
AB: My fiancé already said, ‘No stretching the baby!’
AS: He’ll only dance if he asks and shows interest.
AB: It’s difficult to have a child want to dance, because we’ve made it to the top of our field. I would never want her to feel inferior to her mom, who at that point will not be cool!
JP: Do you think being a dancer helped with labor/delivery?
MK: I don’t think it helped at all! It is such a normal thing that every woman’s body can do, and I realize how truly amazing our bodies are. This pain was like nothing I ever experienced as a dancer. I did labor standing up and in second-position grand plié trying to get him to come down!
AS: During labor Colin wasn’t dropping, so they almost did a C-section. But with all my core strength, I said ‘Get down!’ My doctor couldn’t believe I actually birthed him that way. After going through childbirth I feel like I can do anything onstage.
JP: Is anything about childcare surprising you?
MK: The amount of time breast-feeding requires. I was in tears a lot that first month because I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere.
AS: The first two weeks were the most difficult because you just aren’t sleeping. But the hardest thing was giving myself over completely. It was quite an adjustment.
JP: How did you decide this was the right time to become a mother?
AB: I’m 32, and I wanted to come back and still be at the peak of my career.
Just before this issue went to print, Bouder gave birth to Violet Storm de Florio. Kyle Froman
AS: For my husband and I, it was our plan to have a baby around this age—I’m 33—so it was mostly the clock-is-ticking thing.
MK: I wondered what my body would be like after having a baby: What if I can’t dance as well? What if things don’t work the way they did before? I wanted to feel completely fulfilled before having a baby.
JP: In NYCB history, few dancers have had babies and come back to perform, and now all three of you, all principals…Do you feel like something is changing?
AB: Definitely. People are going to college and doing more outside projects. People have realized you don’t have to be a tunnel-vision ballerina—you can be just as dedicated and as good an artist with more going on in your life.
MK: If not better!
AB: I remember Margaret Tracey being phenomenal after two babies!
AS: And Kyra Nichols, too, Jenny Ringer, Jennie Somogyi…
JP: What do you think the difference is?
MK: It’s a different mentality. For me, this [holding Dylan] is such a huge priority and a happiness you can’t get from anything else.
AS: Maybe the dancing pressure is off a bit because you realize what real stress is!
AB: But you can also really enjoy your time being free and dancing, free of all that responsibility while doing something you love, and then go home to someone that you love.
MK: I feel like such a pedestrian still. I have a new appreciation for what we do as dancers. It will be unbelievable to get back to that level, because it feels so far away! I will truly appreciate being onstage and having that escape from everything. It will be my time. In the end we still are our own people, even as mothers.
Jen Peters is a contributor to Dance Magazine, a dancer and a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.