On the opportunities and challenges of working parenthood in dance
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I’m the founder of Dance Mama which is an organisation for parents, with a focus on women, working in the dance sector. I’ve been working in learning and participation in dance for 20 years, which follows my earlier years of performing in lots of drama and musical theatre as well as doing the ‘Holy Trinity’ of ballet, tap and modern. I was awarded a DADA scholarship to study my degree at Laban when I was 18 and went pretty much straight into a teaching career and some choreographing on graduating. I also like talking, leading and nurturing talent and that led me more into project management roles, so across those 20 years, key projects include the Centres for Advanced Training, Head of Learning at Rambert, and freelancing for the Royal Opera House on Chance to Dance.
How did you get interested in supporting working parents and mothers in particular?
Through a combination of my own lived experience and wanting to make it easier for our generation and those coming up. Before I became a parent, I had gained a good awareness of parents around me in organisations I was working for. At The Place, every single person who sat opposite me became a parent, so I had some lovely role models quite early on. But with my first pregnancy, the only ‘official’ information that was available was the One Dance UK fact sheet, and as brilliant as that was, I didn't really feel like it was quite enough [click here for the current version of the fact sheet]. I had lots of people around me for support in the workplace, but then we moved out to Surrey when I was 6 months pregnant, and it was quite an isolating experience. I’d go to a mum and baby class like yoga or Pilates, but I felt reluctant to share too much of my professional knowledge as it didn’t feel appropriate, despite my natural inclination to do so because of being in a studio working with my body. I found that quite difficult because essentially, the content wasn't quite meeting my bespoke needs.
Then, when I went back to work 6 months later, there just wasn't really anything out there to support me back into the work space. I started getting really frustrated, so I wrote an article where I interviewed a diverse range of colleagues and friends of different ages, parenthood stages, genders, and family set ups, and I realised that their stories needed space. So, I set up the Dance Mama website and took it from there. I became pregnant again, and kept adding to the site, and people kept telling me it had been useful for them, and asking me for support. It made me think, “there's something in this, there’s nobody else doing anything in this individualised way”. By the time I left my job to set up Dance Mama as an organisation in 2018 and really push it further, PiPA (Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts) were on the scene, advocating for change systemically. And while we try and turn that massive oil tanker around, the individual still needs that resilience and support and all of those bespoke elements that I wish I'd had more of.
As I’ve continued with this work, I’ve realised that the physiological factors around pregnancy and post-birth recovery are a huge barrier, particularly for the freelance population. Some companies in the ballet population have got a great track record supporting mums because they've got the resources, health suite and big casts. But how does that translate across to everyone else who isn't on a salary and might not know who is the best counsellor, psychologist or physiologist around to support them? That’s what we are aiming to address long-term.
You offer mentoring support through Dance Mama. In your experience of mentoring, what have you found working parents and carers need support with the most?
The main challenge I hear is about is the juggle of trying to fit everything in and prioritising – the challenges around the tension between caring for your child but also feeding your creativity. We know from the latest PiPA research that, since the pandemic, 7 out of 10 parents and carers across music, theatre and dance are choosing to reconsider their careers because the pressures are too great. So, it’s trying to balance these priorities while understanding that sometimes you might not be able to realise your ambition as quickly or readily as before you had a family. It is difficult having patience and accepting that the success pathway is not straight, it's very wiggly. At some points you might have to put ambitions on a much slower track temporarily – so for example, the job that I took after having my first child was on the same level or maybe even slightly below what I'd been doing previously. I had to say to myself, “that's OK because you still feel challenged, there's lots of variety”, so it would keep me going. While you're exploring that new role as a parent, it’s OK to have the space to do something familiar while you orientate yourself in new territory.
And then time constraints. Where you had much more time before for yourself individually as a human, there is more limitation on your creative time which affects your expression and your energy levels. It’s working out ways of accepting that the time isn't the same and how you can still progress in this context. So for me, I find repetitive domestic chores deathly boring, but I can listen to a podcast and get that intellectual stimulation while doing something I perceive as menial.
And, of course, encouraging people to embrace their new identity and that new version of themselves, and use all of their dancer traits positively.
Can you tell me a bit more about these dancer traits and how, in your experience, they can help or hinder a working parent?
Very generally, dancers have good discipline and organisational skills – you're trained to stick to a schedule, prepare for, and commit to something. Years of having your dance bag ready means you’ve probably got the nappy bag ready! Also, in terms of the teamwork aspect that you get from dancing, working towards a common goal, all of those things are absolutely transferable in your family setup. Understanding your body and reading its signals is another, but making sure that we listen to and really follow those signals rather than continue doing what you may have been trained to do in the past by ignoring those signals and carrying on.
I've got a couple of anecdotes here which I'm happy to share which I think illustrate the good and the bad side of applying the tenacious dancer trait. When I had my daughter, I had an episiotomy and forceps delivery, and I lost approximately two litres blood. Because my mum had a similar birth with my elder sister, I grew up with this narrative and she had inadvertently normalised it, so I just thought, “OK, that’s what happens”. Over those first few weeks I was on iron tablets, had multiple stitches, I had really low energy, and it was my husband's birthday a few days after my daughter was born. I insisted – in a very determined dancer ‘I will nail this pirouette’ type way – on taking him out for lunch with our new baby. Guildford High Street has a very steep incline and I ended up back in hospital a few days later thinking I’d got an infection and I hadn’t, I’d I just overdone it, so that was a big lesson for me. Then, during my second maternity leave, there was an opportunity to go for promotion, so knowing how rare this opportunity was, I applied and interviewed successfully for that as a job share when my son was only 8 days old. I think that epitomises how we will push ourselves in this sector because of the limited opportunities and the fierce competition. Sometimes for the better, but sometimes to our own detriment.
Around these stories also lies perfectionism, which is not a great trait to have as a parent – or dancer! Because there’s no perfection, it’s just chaos – beautiful chaos. The feeling of failing to get a sense of completion – even with the most basic of tasks like getting a shower or loading the dishwasher – can often lead to feeling frustrated. You have to try take a step back and accept it. See parenthood as an improvisation exercise rather than a set barre, that definitely helps. The mentality of pushing through the boundaries can really trip dancers up in parenthood: you have to be really careful to listen to your body and find a way of being kinder to yourself.
That’s so helpful. Leading on from that, what is your advice for individuals who are pregnant or are working parents or carers: what kinds of things do you think will help them with that journey and that juggle?
Definitely using those planning and organisational skills. But also, it’s about building a network for yourself, because a lot of people in our sector will move away from their primary family to go and train at a high level and then they will often stick around that city or around that area to develop their own work. It means that by the time they then decide to have a family they are probably not near their primary family which means getting that ad hoc support easily isn't there for them. So, building your network around you to support you with that, with people that have an understanding of the industry, is absolutely key. Then taking that idea, in terms of your network, to make sure that you know nearby where there's a therapist for any kind of support that you might need, be it physical or psychological.
Next, I would say advocating for yourself particularly around your six-week postnatal check; really emphasising what you do for a living, because it's Russian roulette whether your healthcare practitioner understands the demands of dance.
Another aspect is the huge challenge of low wages and childcare costs. Even in a senior position my salary was only covering the cost of childcare and travel; there was no take-home after that, which is really tough. I really had to lean into the fact I was keeping a rung on the career ladder, and being a role model to my children – those factors are important to dig into as you move through the systemic disadvantage we face at this point in time.
Finally, advocate for yourself in terms of your work situation, using the research that’s out there from PiPA and our friends in sport, such as the Return to Running guidelines and all the great work that the Active Pregnancy Foundation are doing. This will help your employers or collaborators understand your needs and requirements better, as we aim to highlight these issues and work towards the day where the sector will be better informed to support parents and carers in dance from the outset.
So, there are lots of things that individuals can do – what things in the industry do you think need to change to better support working parents and carers, and pregnant dancers?
In terms of the industry, it is just so many things! Culture is one – there are just these general uninformed or excluding social and cultural attitudes around being very active during pregnancy. Then, the attitudes to caring responsibilities in this country which does not really give enough credit to those raising the next generation. As mentioned, the huge issue of childcare costs, the costs of living and the entire education system. If you look at the work of organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed, they highlight that it’s mainly women who bear the brunt of this challenge. School hours are generally not compatible with working hours, then add in the unsociable hours of the dance sector and the problem increases. Even with breakfast clubs and after school clubs, it doesn't always work.
There are things that could be changed systemically fairly easily, like job shares, or having policies written around pregnancy, parenthood and menopause – that whole trajectory for women of how our bodies change overtime. We're in an industry where we’re majority female and we are so far behind in truly supporting women through that whole lifespan. Hopefully my research will work towards contributing to industry guidelines in 5-10 years, and creating CPD for employees and employers of things they can consider. People across the sector are either unaware or forget that they have caregivers as colleagues or employees, who, at times, can be really struggling and often have no acknowledgement, or little to no framework – particularly for freelancers. It's especially tough for a lot of dancers because there's that learned subservience to the choreographer or the teacher; dancers can find it difficult to speak about their needs as they’re worried that they could lose their job. But things are starting to change – in my more recent interviews for Dance Mama, I’ve heard positive anecdotes, for instance a dancer was pregnant on tour and her dressing room was allocated next to the stage and the toilets, and without issue or judgement, her costume was let out as her bump grew.
Also, in dance you've got the artistic side of things, aesthetically, the choices that artistic directors and choreographers are making. But the impact of the lack of support for parents means there are fewer female choreographers, fewer female key decision makers, which means that organisations are not necessarily being run by people who are primary caregivers or have an understanding or empathy for those who are. In turn, this impacts what's being presented on the stage, where a majority of the audience might be female, but their experience is not necessarily being represented on stage. We have to make noise about it, to try and get people to either change their minds or be more open-minded, because we are losing so many fantastic people who have so much to contribute to the sector and they shouldn’t feel that being a parent means that they can’t continue in an artform they love.
For more information about Dance Mama is helping parents in dance move their worlds and how you can get involved, visit www.dancemama.org
Photo credit: Pierre Tappon
Are you juggling work with parenting? Find out about coaching and mentoring with me here. You can also read my blogs on the Dance Mama site about the core challenges of motherhood, and how to deal with 'mum guilt'.