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Published by Harmonia Norah, 2017-06-28 07:29:42

Motherhood balancing act

Motherhood balancing act

wellbeingfeature

Balancing motherhood with a
demanding career is a tough ask of
most women. Three prima ballerinas
from the San Francisco Ballet share
their stories in an intimate new book.

By Jessica O’Sullivan.

BALANballerina’s body is her art form.
CAnd her power and dedication is
Ireflected in that body, which she

A Nwill have honed and controlled
Gsince the age of three or four. So

imagine letting go, gaining weight
and having a baby – the complete anathema to
every experience she’s ever had up to now. But
not only does a ballerina have to deal with her
own feelings of relinquishing control, the fear of
becoming an undesirable casting choice lurks in
the shadows – a fear which many dancers face. “A
woman’s physical desirability is essential to being

ACTcast by her company’s artistic director – almost

invariably a he – who has the latitude to be as
unpredictable and capricious as he wishes,” says
Lucy Gray, author of Balancing Acts, a book which

114 IRISH TATLER JUNE 2015

Tina LeBlanc and baby Sasha James and Katita Waldo
after a performance of
The Nutcracker

Kai and Kirsten Long, just
before she goes on stage

follows three prima ballerinas from the San Francisco Ballet
who became mothers and continued to dance professionally.

Becoming a mother represents one of the toughest possible
situations in a dancer’s career. As a ballerina the hours are
inflexible and long and pay fluctuates. She experiences
enormous pressure to perform flawlessly on stage, as this
affects the roles she’s given and her salary. Not only does
having a baby increase the possibility of injuries, it raises a
host of anxieties that face any woman taking a career break
– that while she is on leave she might be forgotten altogether
and replaced. Then, if she overcomes all of these worries,
there is the challenge of getting pregnant in a window of
a month or two, so she can keep dancing through to her
second month; have the baby in the summer (while the
company is on leave between performance seasons); and be
back on stage dancing the following winter. Only then might
she continue to get paid through the process.

For this reason, Gray became intrigued by three prima
ballerinas in the San Francisco Ballet – Katita Waldo, Tina

JUNE 2015 IRISH TATLER 115

wellbeingfeature

LeBlanc and Kristin Long – who despite all of these tangible
professional risks, chose to become mothers at the pinnacle of
their careers. A move which might have been seen by many as
career suicide. “As a proud feminist I once held negative beliefs
about ballerinas,” says Gray. “I viewed them as self-centered
and self-destructive. Their single-minded devotion to their
craft seemed akin to an addiction, and I was disturbed by their
apparent willingness to starve themselves for the approval of male
directors, as part of a culture that glorified sacrifice as essential
to the artistic process.” Each woman offered Gray permission
to chronicle the chapter of their lives just before and long after
they gave birth, in the hope of showing other dancers that it was
possible to be a mother and still be a star.

Having a child was always a dream that ballerina
LeBlanc wanted to fulfil. “I said I was going to
have my first child before I was 30 and then go
back to dancing. It didn’t seem illogical at all to
ask that of myself because so many ladies go back

to work. Why couldn’t I?” She admits that, while there is part of

her that would have liked to be a stay-at-home mother, she had a

wonderful career that gave her expression and she wasn’t ready

to give that up. “I think I appreciated my time with my son more

because it was quality time. I think you’ll find that the reason

so many dancers are a little nuts is because they aren’t fulfilled.

They haven’t made it to where they want, because someone else is

in control of their career. It can make you bitter; it can change

your outlook,” LeBlanc notes sagely.

What none of the dancers, or even Gray, could have

anticipated is that all three ballerinas improved as

dancers after they had children. Critics described

LeBlanc’s dancing the year after she had a baby as

“poetic”; Long’s as “brilliant”; and Waldo’s as a

“marvel”. Each woman felt that the break from

Tina LeBlanc with Marinko after dancing – the first since they were toddlers – was
a performance of The Nutcracker rejuvenating and the new commitments in their
and right, feeding six-week-old personal lives freed them on stage. Dancing was put
Sasha at rehearsals in perspective; as LeBlanc described it, “I wasn’t saving

a life, I was entertaining people. I could see that after I had

my son. My priority was to raise this little being and enjoy that.

Work provided time away from home, which made returning to

being a mother fun, too.”

Similarly, Long felt that having her son Kai brought a sense

of balance to her life that was missing. “When I was about 20, I

went through a really hard time because I suddenly realised: This

is all I’ve ever done all my life. It was bizarre to me that the only

place I really felt comfortable with myself was on stage. Outside

of that, I didn’t know who the hell I was. I didn’t have Kristin

without the ballet. That was really scary. By the time I was 23, I

thought, you know what? I don’t love to dance. So I took a leave

of absence. That’s when I got to know that I could be someone

other than a ballet dancer. I didn’t need to be so overly obsessed

with dancing. Balance was good. And then it was thrown in my

Kristin Long gets back in shape with face when I had Kai, because I had to have balance. Had I not
six-week-old Hannah looking on
had Kai, I might still be obsessive. He added so much to my life,”
Long adds.

“When I had Kai, I had to have Even so, regrouping muscles, redeveloping stamina on toes
and living primarily on a water diet again were hard-won gains.
balance. Had I not had Kai However, in 2002, the three dancers received the Outstanding
Achievement in Performance – Ensemble Award given by San

I might still be obsessive. He Francisco’s Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee for their
added so much to my life” work in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

LeBlanc revealed they had an in-joke in the company about this
particular dance. “We say only a mother can do Vertiginous

because, having given birth, she’s the one who’ll know how to

116 IRISH TATLER JUNE 2015

“We say only a mother can
do Vertiginous...she’s the one
who will know how to breathe
through these lightning fast
routines”

Kristin Long rehearsing

breathe through these lightning-fast In planning this book over 14 Katita clowns around with James
routines.” And during their acceptance years, Gray documented the full
speech for the award, Long was keen span of the prima ballerinas’ fierce Balancing Acts by
to encourage other ballerinas to creativity – from performing on stage Lucy Gray published
follow suit, saying to the enamoured to giving birth, and back again. She by Princeton
crowd, “For anyone who is thinking bore witness to some of the most Architectural Press
about having a baby while you’re still dramatic moments in their lives in (€22.99)
dancing, we’re here to show you that the delivery room, as well as quieter,
it can be done.” meditative ones in the dressing room. JUNE 2015 IRISH TATLER 117
“I watched these women develop
Bravery comes in many forms but as mothers and dancers; I observed
all three women agree that they could their children as they grew from
not have managed motherhood and tiny newborns to towering teenagers
their careers alone. At the time the with their own professional dreams
San Francisco Ballet was headed by starting to develop. Each of the
artistic director Helgi Tomassson, who dancers eventually retired, and I was
responded to their wishes to become there when the ballet slipper came
parents with kindness and even helped off for the last time.” All three teach
to make it possible. He offered Long ballet now. “The words theatre,
the role of principal dancer, thereby stage, and performance are common
increasing her salary. He cast LeBlanc to both hospitals and ballet; each
in roles that allowed her to continue one is an arena where spectacular,
to dance while pregnant (as well as life-changing events occur,” says
after she gave birth), and colleagues Gray. “Once you have watched these
babysat until she found a nanny. dancers on stage, observing them
Waldo was also offered help with her perform in the hospital makes an
schedule to maximise her pay. “Helgi extraordinary contrast. The breadth
was wonderful. His main concern of these women’s experiences is vast
was that I was making the right life and unique – Look at how much one
decision. I danced fully through my person can create! And when you look
fourth month. Thanks to Helgi, I at Kristin Long doing a tour jeté over
was able to use my sick days cleverly. her son in a rehearsal room, the thrill
I learned the part of the mother in in her dual achievements transcends
Giselle, a character part. I went on that particular space and creates a
tour and did this part when James was frisson that working parents all over
eight weeks old, so I managed to stay the world can recognise.”
paid through the season.”


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