Dancing Dads

August 25, 2010

Changing diapers. Changing costumes. Waking up to feed the baby. Waking up to face the barre. Getting the baby to stop crying. Getting your partner to stop arguing. Scheduling time for your kid. Scheduling time for yourself. Who says dancing and being a father are incompatible? It depends on whom you ask, but for the most part, dancing dads wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Pascal Molat and Matisse. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton

Dancing mothers have received ample attention—pictures of poised ballerinas in practice tutus in the studio holding their infants as if they were budding Auroras. But now that fathers are expected to play a more instrumental role in the upbringing of their children, it’s time to shine a little light on the dads who dance, choreograph, and teach.

Deciding to parent a child while dancing is hardly easy, particularly when little details like staying in prime physical shape, drawing an artist’s salary and touring can get in the way. “My wife Katarzyna Kozielska and I decided to have a child now because we felt ready to move forward in the relationship and because of our ages. We didn’t want to be old parents,” says Damiano Pettenella, a 29-year-old Stuttgart Ballet soloist. “Also, this way my wife could come back to ballet before it’s too late.”

Five years ago, choreographer Bill Young, now 55, decided with the biological clock ticking for his wife, dancer/choreographer Colleen Thomas, “it’s now or never” for both of them. But Paul Matteson, who is married to fellow Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company dancer Jennifer Nugent, says that his daughter Mieke “was a glorious accident, coming at a ridiculously difficult time when our performing lives were keeping us very busy.

The overwhelming changes in a dancing father’s life can never be underesti­mated. “You cease to become the center of your existence. It’s a wonderful change of perspective, because suddenly you have someone to care for who can’t do anything, especially when they are so young,” says Lloyd Riggins, a Hamburg Ballet principal dancer, ballet master and now father of two children, Vianne, 4 1/2, and Oliver, 18 months. “It’s nice to come home and become detached from all those self-centered things, as you must be in the dance world, like looking in the mirror or working on your craft all the time.”

Learning to live with less sleep is a given, sometimes a tough reality for artists who use their bodies. Pascal Molat—whose 10-month-old son, Matisse, defines the schedule for him and his wife, Genevieve Brisebois—says that you have to learn to do more with less energy. “You are more tired, so you spare your energy and do everything more effi­ciently,” says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “Having a baby calmed me down and brought out some good aspects in my dancing.” Riggins and his wife, former dancer (and currently Hamburg ballet mistress) Niurka Moredo, used to take naps regularly before their performances but now rarely have that luxury. The only time he gets to sneak away for a daytime snooze is at the theater before dancing John Neumeier’s Death in Venice, where he, in the role of Gustav von Aschenbach, never leaves the stage for two hours.

But the challenges of sleep deprivation are often offset by other rewards. “I’ve always had this fascination with dance being an art form, as a canvas with these little pieces of humanity onstage,” says Young, whose daughter Olivia is now 4. “That fascination of watching and experiencing humanity is only reinforced by having this little creature around and watching her grow.”

Matteson says he has to fall back on his good sense of humor when negotiating the challenges of being on the road. “Sometimes touring can get the best of us—the small hotel room, performing late and then waking up early to be with Mieke,” he says. “We have to be creative to find space and breathing room, to support and not compete against each other.” Matteson has purposefully scheduled meditation time during the day to increase his mindfulness due to the “unexpected sideswipes of being a dad.”

But, according to some dancing fathers, observing your child can add to your artistic sensibility. Molat found himself making faces a lot, mirroring his son Matisse’s facial expressiveness, which helped him in the role of Petrouchka. “He brought new emotions and feelings that you can translate to the stage,” says the Paris Opéra–trained dancer. “He opened up my vocabulary to new expressions. He kept doing this one thing with his face—not sad, but in-between—that was an inspiration for Petrouchka.”

In Neumeier’s Saint Matthew Passion, Riggins dances the Jesus figure. During a pas de deux near the end of the work, “the first thing I do is come out of a sleep and look forward and see this person I love,” he says. “I have this image of my children’s smiles at that moment.”

Young, who was heavily schooled in formalism, still can’t resist his daughter Olivia’s spontaneity and the images she presents in a tiny human bundle. “When she was 1 year old, you fed her with a spoon and she found it delicious and wiggled her shoulders,” he says. “She takes a bite of her hamburger and she gets up and has to dance. She is always cracking me up.”

Matteson loved to witness the intensity Mieke had as an infant, falling over and grunting to pull herself up again. “I have thought about effort and steadfast repetition a lot when generating movement since she was born,” he says. “I’m inspired by her strange and brilliant physical logic when she dances. Some of her dances I could only hope to match.” Conversely, he feels that his background in improvisation has led him to become more intuitive and spontaneous as opposed to trying too hard to be “a proper dad.”

When it comes to fatherhood, the only certainties are the uncertainties. Pettenella, known for dancing bad-boy roles like Tybalt, Jack the Ripper, and Hilarion, expected it to be a tough road and was initially afraid that any free time for himself would be altogether elusive. “Then I discovered that it’s just a big pleasure to have the opportunity to be next to our little Mia, now 13 months old, and to have the chance to experience the beauty of a new life,” he says.

Riggins quickly learned the capacity for feelings that children naturally possess—going from happiness to anxiety in a split second. “It was a real surprise how open the nerve endings are,” he says. What truly caught him off guard, though, was the birth of his second child, Oliver, and the overwhelming stress of trying to keep up with the responsibilities. “It was a slow shock process for me. I couldn’t catch up with everything,” he admits. “I retreated a bit. I had to pull myself together. It was just a gradual thing that I had to wake up again.”

As far as encouraging their children to become dancers, the emphasis seems to be on creating an environment to grow and discover new experiences, no matter the field. “Olivia loves the task of doing something creative,” says Young. “She loves to draw, construct, explore. I just want her to feel free to do all these things. I want her to be safe.” Molat has a distinctly Gallic attitude: “I believe art elevates the soul. If he wants to be an artist…fine.”

Riggins says that he and his wife have not pushed dancing on their daughter, even though he came from a dancing family. (His mother, Barbara Riggins, founded Orlando’s Southern Ballet Theatre, now Orlando Ballet, and his siblings performed professionally.) In fact, after watching a half an hour of the swan corps rehearsal conducted by Moredo, Vianne grew pretty bored and asked to leave.

But no matter what happens later in life, the blessings and problems of fatherhood seem only intensified for dancing dads.

“My life has become at once more crystalline and more chaotic,” says Matteson.


Joseph Carman is a
Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.