New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
When I was 9, my ballet teacher chose me to perform a solo in our end-of-year performance. I was quite young, and was chosen over many of the advanced students. But I wasn't fazed—I was excited.
Then, I overheard some of the older girls talking: “Abi shouldn't be doing that solo." “I can't believe she's doing it." I still remember the tone of disgust in one girl's voice.
Such chatter is unfortunately part of growing up, particularly in the competitive ballet world. But I was completely crushed. Prior to this, I had no reason to doubt my abilities. But those older girls didn't think I was good enough. A seed of self-doubt was planted in my psyche.
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.
I'm a shy person. Carrying on a conversation has never been my strong suit. When I started ballet lessons at 6, I didn't talk to many of the other kids. I worried that I would say the wrong thing and they would laugh at me. But as I learned ballet, I realized that dancing made me feel free. I didn't have to talk to anyone. I had a new way to communicate my feelings. No one expected me to do anything except dance—and that I could do. The studio became my comfort zone.
A couple years ago, I went through a terrible performance season. I was taken out of my roles because my body didn't look good. My confidence was taken and my comfort was gone. Even though dance was my rock in life, suddenly, I didn't want to dance anymore. It was causing me pain that penetrated into the deepest places of my soul. I almost quit. For about six months afterwards, every day I had to stop myself from marching into the staff offices and quitting on the spot. I absorbed every negative thing said to me about my body and my dancing. Worse yet, I lost my method of communicating. In order to pick myself back up, I had to explore the reasons why I loved to dance.
It turns out that I love many things about ballet. I love watching it, teaching it and, of course, I love dancing it. I love the way dancing feels on my body. Going over choreography in my mind is better than daydreaming about what I would buy if I won the lottery. I love trying to think of creative ways to make the movement my own. I'll often go into an empty studio with the lights dimmed when no one is around. Playing with the choreography feeds my creativity. It makes me feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.
My favorite moment of a performance is the split second when I shift from standing in the wings as a normal person to being a ballerina on the stage. Sometimes I get goose bumps when I cross this threshold. These moments are not about the audience, the music or the choreography. They are about me—all my hard work and my belief in myself. Each time I step onto the stage, it means I have summoned my courage once again to share my dancing with an audience. I don't have to worry about stumbling over my words. I can just be. I'm so glad I didn't let my disappointment take away these moments—they are what I live for.