Feeling Split

Balancing Dance Careers and Motherhood

In this Signature Blog our outgoing Communications Manager, Helga Brandt, spent time with some of Stopgap’s new mothers to reflect on balancing a career in the dance industry with parenthood…

Listen to Helga read this blog on SoundCloud…

Three members of Stopgap have recently become mothers – three excellent reasons to celebrate and welcome the new arrivals into the Stopgap family. But looking at the wider sector, becoming a parent and working in the performing arts can be disproportionately hard. Outgoing Communications Manager Helga Brandt takes a look at whether/how being an inclusive company makes a difference and chats with Amy Butler, Siobhan Hayes and Hollie Park about life after pregnancy.

[Image Description: A black and white photo of Siobhan, a white woman, as she rests her head on her hands at a ballet barre. Her face hidden, the camera captures her clear reflection in the mirror in front of her from over her shoulder. She wears her hair up in a ponytail, a long sleeve top and a ring on her left hand.]

Making babies and making (it) work

“How can the dance ecology support these two creative acts in tandem – making babies and making work?” (Charlotte Vincent, The Guardian, 31 May 2012)

Almost a decade later – and in the midst of a devastating pandemic – the question Charlotte Vincent posed in her exploration of dancing and parenthood (see list of resource links at the end of this post) seems as pertinent today as it was then.

Attitudes might have slowly begun to shift, but still, “the pressures including finance, working in isolation, social capital, and biological impact (if unsupported) have meant that dance has lost many talented people,” says Lucy McCrudden, founder of resource hub Dance Mama and mother of two (www.istd.org, March 2021).

Becoming a parent is always lifechanging. But the performing arts are a sector that makes the decision whether to have children especially hard:

“Our evidence-based reporting demonstrates that parents and carers working in the performing arts are disproportionately disadvantaged by irregular schedules, long hours, regular evening and weekend work, last minute changes, work away from home and financial instability. This is exacerbated by the lack of affordable, flexible care for children, disabled or older relatives.” (pipacampaign.org)

For dancers, arguably more so than for other performers, their bodies are their instruments, and so they have the additional challenge of how to manage the physical changes that come with pregnancy and childbirth to get their bodies ready for work after becoming a parent.

“My body felt far away from the dancing body I knew (I could not recognise let alone connect with my centre!) so I had to get to know the new me, and nurture myself back to fitness patiently.” (KJ Mortimer, freelance dancer and lecturer, www.dancemama.org)

The Stopgap Example

A recent Guardian article highlights some of the issues dancers and choreographers face when they have children, from the physical toll to working long, family-unfriendly hours or losing out on job opportunities. There are, however, positive examples too, from “children on tour” policies to directors who are open to flexible working around family commitments.

To encourage more organisations into developing flexible and supportive working practices, PiPA (Parents & Carers in the Performing Arts) have created a Best Practice Charter, a set of guidelines that changes and grows based on PiPA’s own research, organisations’ “real world circumstances” and best practice examples from other sectors.

The 10-point charter covers areas such as recruitment and company policies and encourages a proactive approach to creating a better work-life balance, really understanding and supporting a company’s workforce and celebrating best practice.

[Image Description: A photo of Lucy, a white woman with curly black hair, as she dances in a studio. Standing, she slightly twists her spine as she reaches a long straight arm outwards and away from her, the other arm held in to her side. She wears a stripy red and white top.]

At Stopgap, most of these points are observed as a matter of course. “Everything was already in place,” says Artistic Director Lucy Bennett with a view to the PiPA charter. The company doesn’t have a specific family/parents’ policy and adheres to what is required by law in terms of maternity/parental leave. But because Stopgap has an inclusive approach, being flexible around childcare is something that comes naturally. It includes flexible work hours to help with childcare/school run and support with finding and booking accommodation for bringing children on tour. Once the company changed the location of rehearsals in response to childcare issues.

“I do think it was helpful that the Artistic Director had a child,” concedes Lucy. Herself and Vicki Balaam, Stopgap’s founding Artistic Director, were the first in the company to become pregnant and could lead by example.

While Lucy is content with Stopgap’s internal support structures, she does see issues when it comes to touring. “Nobody seems to write about being on the road with children,” she says, although she acknowledges that especially outdoor festivals are usually very supportive. And she is very clear that the sector has to cope better with the realities of childbirth: “Transition periods have to be normalised.” Even though the experience is different for every mother, and even different with every child, no one gives birth and comes back to dance at 100% straight away. This view is echoed by others, for example former Royal Ballet soloist Elizabeth Harrod: “There’s the sense with this job that you’ve had a baby and you’ll reappear at work with a six-pack and your pointe shoes on.” (The Guardian, 3 March 2021).

Dancer Amy Butler agrees that the physical transition after birth has to be normalised by the sector. But she also acknowledges her own reluctance and struggle to do so: “It’s still quite hard for me to compute that I’m not the same body in the studio that I was before. So, I will still try and go to the places I was going to before. So even though I know that it’s okay for me not to, it’s quite difficult for me to accept.”

[Image Description: A trio of photos. On the left Hollie, a white woman, sits at a table with her head resting on a fist and smiles. Centrally, Siobhan during class, she stands whilst holding and massaging another dancer's hand, in the photo she is heavily pregnant. On the right Amy, a white woman, stands in a studio during class, she gestures her hands whilst she talks.]

“It just doesn't feel like your body is yours anymore” – The personal experience

Speaking to Amy, Siobhan and Hollie not only highlighted many similarities, but also the fact that having children is a completely unique and individual experience for every woman. It’s also an experience no-one can completely prepare for, which might be especially hard for dancers, who spend their lives training and preparing for performance.

Feeling conflicted about returning to work, for example, was something neither of them expected. “Getting back to work was really hard,” says Assistant Artistic Director Siobhan Hayes. “[F]or the first time, I had something […] that felt more important. I felt really split, basically. I really wanted to be at work and to do a good job and to feel like I still had stuff to give, and […] the other half of me just wanted to look after Aoife.”

Communications Manager Hollie Park felt unprepared for how strong the pull was to stay with her daughter, given how passionate she is about working in the arts. And she never expected how heart-wrenching it would feel to put her daughter into nursery: “She gets upset and then I feel like I want to cry. Then I find myself throughout the day suddenly missing her a lot. I never really thought would feel quite like that.”

Siobhan, whose daughter is about 15 months old now, found it easier with time. She struggled with homeworking and is happy about returning to the studio. “It is much, much nicer. […] It feels like there’s a bit more separation between being a mum and being at work, which is really helpful. When they kind of are the same thing, I find that so challenging. I just don’t know how to do both at the same time.”

Freelancer Amy had to weigh up her conflicting feelings about coming back to work against financial considerations and planning for the future. She worked on several projects when she was pregnant and returned to one of them four months after giving birth to her daughter: “I think I started dancing too early, really. But I wanted to do the project. They were a lovely company. And there’s something about if I said yes to stuff early on, and after having her, then I would have enough work in the future. And if I said no, I was always worried – and still am – that, you know, you always get written off, ‘Oh, she’s had a baby. She’s not not wanting to work.’ This kind of mentality.”

Amy’s experience in this case has been positive because the company (Highly Sprung) were very supportive. She is also very appreciative about Stopgap’s flexibility and willingness to accommodate her needs as a new mother. Coming back early has secured her work in the future she wouldn’t have got otherwise, but it came at a price: “I’m having a great time being a mum right now. I understand [when] people say, ‘don’t rush back’. And I did rush back. And it means that now I’m in quite a good position. […] If I worked in an industry where you get amazing maternity pay for that time that you’re off, and then when you come back, you come back, then I would keep longer, but I can’t do that.”

Financial concerns around childbirth are not exclusive to freelance working. Hollie – who came back to her role part-time – brings up the price of childcare and points out that the cost of having a second child would exceed her income. In a low paid sector such as the arts weighing up the costs of returning to work against doing a job you’re passionate about is not an easy decision to make.

For a dancer, it is of course not only a question of whether or when to come back to work, but also how long it takes to get back into shape and to reclaim their body. Neither Siobhan nor Amy felt it was too hard to get back to a certain fitness level, but they do acknowledge changes and the need to be patient with themselves and their bodies. Both mention the lack of time for important elements of self-care: “I don’t do any like, nice, gentle hands-on stuff, things that really improve your body in a more systematic way. I just don’t have time or headspace. I can do a quick bit of Pilates, or I can do a quick bit of yoga, or I can do a quick cycle or whatever. But then straight away back to being a mum. So, I don’t take any extra time around that core bit of training to look after my body.” (Amy)

Siobhan has a similar journey. But she also says, “I enjoy just time to move more than I did before. And I make a point of trying to enjoy it rather than see it as work. Because it is quite precious time.”

A group of people from Stopgap sat in a circle in a studio.

[Image Description: A group photo of Stopgap, over twenty people in wheelchairs, sat on the floor and on chairs are gathered in a circle in a studio with mirrors on one end and windows at the other.]

Inclusion Elevates All

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to additional hardship for parents and carers in the performing arts, especially women, which is highlighted by the PiPA Covid Research Report. Key findings show that one in four women were doing 90% or more of the childcare, that women were 50% more likely than men to be uncertain about their future in the sector, and that 72% of parents and carers were considering abandoning their career in the performing arts altogether.

For Stopgap, already comfortable with allowing and encouraging different personal working patterns, the changes that were enforced by the pandemic supported the company’s way of operating. “If anything, it normalised working from home,” says Lucy.

For Amy, working from home during her pregnancy has been a good experience. Being on Zoom meant that she was able to switch off video and/or audio when needed but still to partake or give feedback. “It was much gentler, and there was much more room for me to rest.”

All three women are hugely appreciative of Stopgap’s flexibility around work schedules, childcare or managing personal energy levels during rehearsals.

This is not to say that being an inclusive organisation can compensate for external pressures such as gaps in Government support funding or increase in stress and anxiety levels, but it proved to be an advantage during the pandemic.

By following their vision to create an inclusive world where no one is limited by prejudice against Deaf, disabled, or neurodiverse people, Stopgap creates a flexible work environment that equally benefits all team members, disabled and non-disabled, whether they choose to become parents or not.

With special thanks to Amy, Hollie and Siobhan for their generosity and honesty in sharing their personal experiences of becoming mothers. The conversations we had were rich and detailed and went far beyond what could be shared in a single blog, but I hope I have been able to represent them truthfully.

– Helga Brandt (www.the-write-brandt.com)

Photos: Chris Parkes

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