Health & Body

Happy Mother's Day! These 3 Professional Dancers Share Their Stories of Motherhood

Happy Mother's Day! We are so grateful for all of the mamas in the dance world. Whether related by blood or not, we mother each other, and we are lucky to be a part of such a generous and nurturing community.

As a special treat today, we caught up with three professional ballerinas across the country who are also new mothers. We got the ins and outs on the joys and challenges that come with motherhood and a top-of-your-game career. Check it out!

Allison DeBona: Soloist at Ballet West

Baby: Ajax

Age: 4 months

Q: How long before giving birth were you able to dance?

A: "I was in class two days before I had him—I was trying to get him out! But I couldn't do much the same way I could before I was pregnant though. Every pregnancy is different, but for me Ajax was so low that I lost the ability to get my legs to the front super early on."

Q: How long after you had your baby did you begin dancing again?

A: "I went back to work for Ballet West just four weeks after having Ajax as the Queen in Swan Lake. I didn't get permission to actually dance though until about eight weeks after."

Q: What has surprised you most about coming back to dance after having a baby?

A: "My mental approach to ballet culture and how I work in the studio is completely different. I just don't find things as dramatic or urgent as I once did. There used to always be some kind of drama before a performance where everything would feel so difficult as I sought perfection. Now, I feel like I am there to enjoy myself. I am an even harder worker than I was before because if I'm going to be away from my baby, I'm going to make the most of that time.

"I don't care about looking stupid. I went back to work on Monday and got thrown into rehearsal for a ballet created in August when I couldn't really do anything. I looked like a fool and I didn't care. I felt out of shape, and I couldn't get my legs up the way I wanted and I couldn't move as quickly. I did it in a leotard and tights with no warm-ups on, and I didn't even care. I gained 60 pounds with Ajax. I am down 45 and I still have 15 to go. I'm trying to stay realistic about it. Who gains 60 pounds in nine months loses 45 in four and then says, 'Well I still have 15 to go'? I'm doing great."

Q: How do you juggle it all?

A: "I just kinda do it. I don't have a choice. Until I went back to work, Rex [Tilton] and I were on our own, but the week I started dancing again his mom came out to help. I was feeling afraid to leave him in a daycare all day. On top of dancing I'm also juggling artEmotion [a summer intensive DeBona created with Tilton]. I was managing all 19 of our auditions on our tour just two weeks after giving birth."

Q. What advice do you have for dancers who are afraid they can't do both?

A: "I think the best advice I could give is to not make expectations for yourself post-pregnancy. I wanted to be back to 100 percent way sooner than my body or my baby wanted me to. I learned I'm not really in control anymore. Dancers coming back have to be OK with that. It's not easy to look at other ballerinas go through pregnancy yet have a totally different journey than your own. Some women can kind of stay in shape, some women gain weight immediately—all of our bodies are different. Stay open to your journey.

Ashley Ellis: Principal at Boston Ballet

Baby: Gray

Age: 3 months

Q: How long before giving birth were you able to dance?

A: "I took class my whole pregnancy—like up to the morning I went into labor. For some people that doesn't work, and there is no judgment either way. For me it was OK. I felt really happy in class, and it was just really nice to move and sweat a little bit that whole time.

Q: How long after you had your baby did you begin dancing again?

A: "I took a couple weeks off, and then I gradually began to do a little bit of movement. Having never gone through this before, I had assumed I could push myself the way I used to, but you really have to be careful. Things are still moving internally for a little while. It's hard but I've had to be patient. I did grande allégro for the first time just over two months after having the baby. I'm still on my way back."

Q: What has been the greatest joy about having a baby?

A: "As a woman, as a person, as a wife, everything has been so incredible. I feel so fortunate to have been able to go through every part of pregnancy. I found it all very fascinating and joyous. And then having the little guy here, there is just so much love. My heart feels so full all the time."

Q: What advice do you have for dancers who are about to become mothers themselves?

A: "If you're one thinking that you maybe want it, it is so worth it. It's a challenge coming back, and your body goes through a lot, but it's not so hard that it's not worth it. Take a break when you need to take a break. Work when you need to work. Listen to your body."

Laura Tisserand: Principal Dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet

Baby: Amélie

Age: 21 months

Q: How long before giving birth were you able to dance?

A: "I continued to take company class every day all through my pregnancy. I got pregnant in October and I performed through Nutcracker, and then I stopped dancing onstage. I felt pretty good throughout my whole pregnancy. I danced and swam at least twice a week.

Q: How long after you had your baby did you begin dancing again?

A: "I had her when the company was on summer break, so my husband was able to be around as well. It was amazing. I had him all through July and August as well. I took the full recommended six weeks before doing physical activity (OK, maybe five. I hedged it a little bit.) I took that time and enjoyed every moment with her.

"I did start to put pointe shoes on early, though—not wearing them felt foreign. I think doing that helped keep my feet in shape. I started performing again at the end of October."

Q: What has surprised you most about coming back to dance after having a baby?

A: "It was so amazing to me that I could have ballet as my passion and now this wonderful girl who is also my passion—really my foremost passion. God gave me two things that I can have and love. For me, I happened to be lucky and things clicked back pretty quickly. It was actually surprising to me that I was able to come back as quickly as I did.

"Motherhood has made the road of my career more enjoyable. I feel like every hour at the studio or theater is so precious because they are taking hours away from my child. It makes me maximize everything. I am fully present when I am there so that when I leave I can be fully present with my child. I think that has made my dancing more enjoyable to watch. Before I might have cared about what the audience is thinking or if they liked watching me in a certain role. Now, I realize everyone is there to have a good time, and I am there to do my best and that is all that matters."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is Ă  la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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