Dance and Motherhood: A Pregnant Pause
Creative & Cultural Skills website, 21 December 2007
Since 1994, Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) has developed a reputation for making and touring heartfelt, engaging and accessible devised dance theatre productions across the UK and beyond. VDT is an Arts Council Regularly Funded Organisation, raising the rest of our income from touring, education work, grants and G4A Lottery Funding.
Our work often includes live music and is marketed towards a mature audience of theatre, music and dance lovers. As a feminist practitioner I try to reject gender and dance stereotypes within the work and am more interested in seeing feisty female performers who are physically powerful and emotionally expressive.
As an Artistic Director approaching 40, who has worked in the arts for 17 years, I currently face challenging questions within the company with dancers wanting to create families as well as create new work. I am finding that questions around pregnancy, motherhood and dance are as tricky, complex and emotionally demanding as the process of making work itself.
Art or Babies?
Female practitioners generally commit 100% of their time and energy to the creative process and the demands of a touring lifestyle. Having a transitory lifestyle becomes normal and expectations around family and partners are limited by the lifestyle we choose as working artists.
“How can the dance ecology support two creative acts in tandem – making babies and making work?”
As we mature and the biological clock kicks in, some female practitioners realise that they have left motherhood too late and some decide they don’t want children at all, preferring life on the road. But what about those who choose to do both? How can the dance ecology support these two creative acts in tandem – making babies and making work?
A female dancer is usually someone who has been preoccupied with her body and the function of it all her adult life. The process of getting pregnant for individuals who have experienced eating disorders in the past, or women who are underweight and over-exhausted, can be frustrating, debilitating and painful.
The issue of whether to get pregnant at all, while still performing, depends on the nature of the work. Miscarriage becomes a stark possibility as a result of over-exertion, especially in older mothers. The kind of work dancers engage with will also determine their decision to continue with it or not. If jumping over 120 chairs or falling onto a tonne of slate (as in my work), you may think twice about putting your/your baby’s health at risk by continuing to perform.
Women working freelance as dancers have difficult decisions to make in getting pregnant. If they stop dancing, their income may grind to a halt. Some women outside of stable relationships may choose not to continue with pregnancy under these circumstances. Some freelancers with partners able to support their venture into motherhood may become financially dependent for the first time in their lives – a difficult emotional and psychological adjustment for feminists! If working PAYE at least there should be statutory maternity pay for dancers; however, full-time contemporary dance jobs with all the benefits are not widely available in the UK’s experimental dance scene, and limited within the contemporary scene as a whole.
How can dance companies offer new models of best practice to support women in work before, during and after pregnancy? At VDT one of our core Polish members has just returned to work after 18 months off to have a baby. VDT have provided her with suitable family accommodation while she works here, travel costs for the whole family to come to the UK, a car with a baby car seat to get around while the family is here and ‘per diems’ for her partner instead of costs for nursery care.
“To avoid losing our best mature performers to motherhood we must provide consistent, appropriate support to encourage women back to work”
This is a unique, ‘bespoke’ solution because she is making a solo for the company, and because her partner’s working patterns are flexible. However, if all six women from the last ensemble piece the company made had children and partners to accommodate, this model may not be financially sustainable for a company of VDT’s size and status.
Practically, we are working shorter days than usual with several visits a week from the dancer’s partner and baby to the studio. Emotionally the dancer is finding that broken nights’ sleep with a teething baby inhibits her usual recovery time, which can lead to accumulative tiredness. As a precaution VDT have employed a fully paid understudy to learn her role, this for the first time in the company’s history. Arts Council England (ACE) has supported this model.
To avoid losing our best mature performers to motherhood we must provide consistent, appropriate support to encourage women back to work or we will create a UK dance ecology dominated by men and younger female artists whose work is valid, but perhaps lacks emotional depth. The many practical ways to do that can be considered and designed for each company / individual involved but may benefit from ACE policy.
Alongside these organisational responsibilities, however, are the considerations of the individual and how she manages the psychological and emotional shift from artist to mother and back again. I am told that after having a child, everything else somehow falls away. How to put that question on the map?