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By Elaine Stuart
5 Dancers on Balancing Motherhood and Career
Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg had a clear vision of how things would go when she and her husband, fellow MCB principal Carlos Miguel Guerra, decided to have a baby. Then she passed her due date by two weeks and had an unplanned cesarean section. “I had to take off longer than expected and couldn’t do any physical activity other than walking for eight weeks,” says the mom of Eva, now 1. “I was devastated. I had this whole plan in mind and it got shot down.”
Right: Tania Isaac, with Eve, on the barre, and Naomi, underneath the barre, in the dance studios of Drexel University. By Jonas Gustavsson, Courtesy Isaac.
In a way Kronenberg’s delivery mirrors the experience of having children as a professional dancer: You can never really predict or be prepared for how your life will change. Yet more and more dancers are choosing parenthood and continuing to perform or choreograph. The key, these artists say, is embracing the ups and downs and learning to adapt. In doing so, they’ve found their lives enriched not only by the presence of their children but also by a fuller, more rewarding career.
The first challenge of having a baby as a dancer is deciding when. Heather Olson, a New York City choreographer and veteran member of Tere O’Connor Dance, admits she worried about taking time off, since a dancer’s professional life can be brief. “I had a feeling I was at a really good place in my career and nervous about cutting that moment short,” she says.
Kronenberg can relate. “Timing when to have a child is difficult because you know it’s going to put a big pause in your career,” she says. “And every season has some role you want to do.”
Left: PNB's Kaori Nakamura, backstage with Maya, during Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. Photo courtesy Nakamura.
Olson found a way to diffuse her anxiety through dance. Just before giving birth to her daughter, Lake, 2, she presented her first solo show, and the piece centered on her mounting apprehensions. “I felt like I was about to travel into an abyss of the unknown, and the whole creative project became about that,” she says. “It gave me an outlet for my fears and also a feeling of strength—if I was able to make an evening-length piece and perform it while seven months pregnant, I would be able to figure it out afterwards.”
Such determination comes naturally to many dancers. Take Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Kaori Nakamura. She always knew she wanted to be a mom but assumed she’d wait until she retired. “But when I turned 40 I realized I still want to dance and I still can dance, but at the same time 40 is getting old to have a baby,” Nakamura says. “So that’s when I decided I’ll have a baby and then come back.” And three months after her daughter, Maya, now 2, was born she performed the grand pas de deux from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The decision to have a baby can be even more daunting for freelance artists, especially when things don’t go as planned. Tania Isaac, a dancer/choreographer and assistant teaching professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, had to cancel a tour with Rennie Harris because she was so sick while pregnant with her first daughter, Naomi, 9, and was bedridden for eight months with her second, Eve, 2.
Right: Lori Yuill shares the studio with Lola. Photo by Emily Marcel Theys.
Houston-based dancer and choreographer Lori Yuill had a performance lined up for after her daughter’s birth but, like Kronenberg, had to revise her expectations when Lola, 1, arrived. “It was frustrating,” Yuill admits. “I had imagined that in six months I’d be back to normal. Now I’m realizing some things may never be back to what normal was.”
All of these women say their lives were altered dramatically by having children. Balancing a dance career and a baby involves stress and sacrifice, both in and out of the studio. There’s constant concern over financial stability and childcare. Some of these artists manage by bringing their children to work—even when that means long rehearsals, late performances, and touring. “I have, for better or worse, not respected the rigorous rules of bedtimes,” says Isaac. But she believes her daughters have benefitted from this choice. “I watch my 9-year-old adapt in wildly various social settings, and I love that some of that has come from the culture of art.”
Above: Healther olson with Lake at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, Florida State University. Photo by Carol Ann Olson, Courtesy Olson.
Nakamura and Kronenberg, whose schedules are more fixed, rely on full-time nannies. But spending all day away from the baby presents its own challenges. “It’s really hard emotionally and mentally, and it’s already hard physically,” Nakamura says. And Kronenberg admits she worries about Eva constantly. “Before, in the studio it was ballet, ballet, ballet. I never thought about anything else. Now it’s this constant tape running in my mind.” But, she adds, the nature of her job helps her suppress that. “It comes down to focus, and ballet dancers are so focused there can be a hurricane happening next to you and you know how to block it out.”
Then there’s the enemy of all new parents: exhaustion. “It’s difficult to rehearse when you’ve been up for most of the night,” says Olson—noting that you quickly learn to do more with less. “I used to push really hard, but now I’m learning how to ride the physics of what I’m doing. I’m learning how to be more efficient, and strangely enough it’s improved my dancing.” Less energy also means less negative energy, which can have unexpected benefits onstage. Nakamura says she doesn’t get as nervous before performing with the perspective her daughter provides.
Of course, parenthood means shifting priorities. For Isaac and Olson, touring is more of a challenge than it once was, and Yuill says she has less of a need to rush the rehearsal process. But what’s more surprising is how having a baby reinforced these dancers’ devotion to their art. Isaac considers her work “my first and most needy child” and believes that starting a family deepened her commitment to a life in dance. Yuill—who has been developing a gestural dance based on Lola’s movements—agrees, saying, “I’m able to see things with fresher eyes. Since everything in her world is a new discovery, it’s taken away a little of the cynicism.” Or as Kronenberg puts it, “I feel like a more complete person and bring that into my work as a ballet dancer.”
Above: MCB's Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg shows Eva how to tie her ribbons. Photo by Carlos Guerra, Courtesy Kronenberg.
And in some ways, even the struggles of being a professional dancer who is also a mother can be empowering. “There is something really great about learning how to survive and make it happen. It’s a skill a lot of dancers have, and you draw on that skill,” says Olson. “I have days I feel overwhelmed and upset, but most days I feel unbelievably lucky to have both of these experiences in my life.”
Advice for New Moms
Share a sitter
If there are other dancers with kids in your company or project, hire one babysitter to watch the group and split the cost.
Make the most of breaks
Have an hour off for lunch or a lag between rehearsals and live close by? Head home for a midday visit with your baby.
Learn to let go
Accept the fact that you’ll rarely be able to arrive early to warm up before technique class or squeeze in that extra strength-training session. Beating yourself up about it will only make you less productive in the studio.
A New York dance writer, Elaine Stuart is expecting her first child in December.