Of the hundreds of professional ballerinas working in the United States, the vast majority choose to postpone having children until after they retire. Pregnancy poses very real risks to a dancer’s body—weight gain, muscle softening due to hormone fluctuations, and time away from training, to name a few. It’s also accompanied by workplace discrimination by many ballet directors who see pregnancy and maternity leave as a distraction from dancing. (Famed choreographer George Balanchine didn’t even allow his dancers to have serious relationships, on the grounds that it would steal their focus.)
Modern ballerinas are understandably reluctant to risk their careers just as they reach their dancing peak in their 20s and 30s. In 1998, only five principal dancers with American ballet companies were working after having children.
Three of them were dancers with the San Francisco Ballet, and were shattering conventions by having kids at the peak of their careers and coming back to earn the highest accolades and best reviews of their lives.
San Francisco-based photographer Lucy Gray chronicled their journeys in Balancing Acts, a new photographic anthology from Princeton Architectural Press that spans 14 years of the dancer’s careers. “I realized how unusual it was for a prima ballerina to be a mother,” says Gray, who launched the project when she first encountered a thin, pale dancer named Katita Waldo in a local grocery story 16 years ago. Waldo and two of her colleagues, Kristin Long and Tina Leblanc, were all mothers and principals with the San Francisco Ballet—and they fascinated Gray.
“Risking your livelihood by having a child is courageous,” Gray says.
“I was a working mother like the ballerinas in this book, although my boys were a few years older than their newborns. From the start we had a natural affinity and, yes, we did talk about our children, but I was not inspired by our likenesses. It was our differences that made me want to photograph these women and keep at it for fourteen years,” writes Gray in her introduction.
“What none of us involved in this project could have anticipated is that all three ballerinas improved as dancers after they had children,” Gray writes.
Yet by focusing on the unique challenge faced by professional ballerinas weighing their careers against motherhood, Gray exposed universal experiences shared by all working moms. “Their careers represent one of the toughest possible situations for a working mother. If these women could balance work and parenthood—and succeed at both—then surely many of us, among the tens of millions of working mothers in this country, can do so, too,” Gray writes.
The women in the book shared their experiences in their own words. Here, we excerpted their leading insights.
“They all felt that the break from dancing—the first since they were toddlers—was rejuvenating in the extreme, and each dancer found that the new commitments in her personal life freed her on stage. They were no longer dancing just for themselves,” writes Lucy Gray.
“By the time I was twenty-three, I thought, You know what? I don’t love to dance. I was dancing only to be thin. I’d go to aerobics class before ballet, at six o’clock in the morning. So I took a leave of absence. That’s when I got to know that Kristin could be someone other than a ballet dancer. I didn’t need to be so overly obsessed with dancing, because it brought me down. Balance was good. And then it was thrown in my face when I had Kai, because I had to have balance. Had I not had Kai, I might still be obsessive.”—Kristin Long
“I really feel that being a more well-rounded person helps me understand roles and keeps a perspective on what I’m doing. OK, I’m nervous for this performance, but I’m not saving a life, am I? I’m out there entertaining people. Who cares if I slip and fall down? It’s a personal challenge…When I came back after having Marinko, I felt so different as a dancer. No longer was it my live-or-die sort of thing. It was fun. My work was at home— that was my job.”—Tina LeBlanc
“We were really afraid that having a child would hurt Katita’s career, and it did the opposite. It gave her a little bit of a parent’s perspective about taking a step back from the rat race of trying to be Helgi’s favorite for this role or that role. That didn’t matter as much anymore. She was able to relax a little bit, to work hard for herself instead of someone else, to improve her teaching, to teach herself. Three or four years after she had James, people were saying to her, ‘My God, where did you come from? You’re better than before!’ That’s a rare story.” —Marshall Crutcher, partner to Katita Waldo
“You’re probably a better dancer if you’re capable of having a child. You’re then a different animal. You’re a mother or you’re a father. You’ve got bigger things to worry about than just dance. You do your dance in a different way. It becomes a job, and it also becomes an escape, and it also becomes something you can give to rather than something you are striving to take from. I think that’s the best thing for any artist.” —Martin West, partner of Kristin Long
“We came back to San Francisco when Kai was four months old. I felt things would be different because I had Kai. It inspired me. I think with anything in life, if you’re really excited about it or really driven, it comes. I would advise everyone to take a leave of absence, although every director would kill me. I would say, ‘Go for it, take a year.’”—Kristin Long
“I work hard to find activities with him that aren’t physical. I don’t want to go home and say, ‘Mommy’s too tired,’ but I played baseball with him one weekend, and I totally wrecked my arm. I was swinging so hard. Every muscle in my body hurts from dance, and I can’t afford to get injured. So I am really creative. He’ll cook with me now. We do art projects, and we read, and I’ll throw the baseball to him.”—Kristin Long
“Thanks to Helgi, I was able to use my sick days cleverly. I came back and did pliés a week after James was born. I learned the mother in Giselle, a character part. But of course, now I’ll never get out of it. But it’s OK because it always reminds me of James. I went on tour and did the mother when James was eight weeks old.” —Katita Waldo
“I thought that would be terrifying, all that pressure first time back after having a baby, so I was determined to dance in some shows of Nutcracker, just to get my stage feet back. I’m glad I did. It was something that was familiar; it wasn’t too difficult, and there wasn’t a lot of pressure. I had a couple of decent shows, and I had a couple of bad ones, but it let me know where I was at. I was probably a little heavy, but it worked out the best for me.”—Tina LeBlanc
“I never had the perfect body. It wasn’t until after I had Kai that [Helgi] suddenly said, ‘You look different, you look better.’ I had cheekbones, and what had been breasts that were higher up dropped down, which is, of course, what they want a ballerina to look like. I guess that had stopped me, in his mind, from making me a soloist or principal. Because I had done so much soloist work and principal work as a soloist but never got the title. And then when that shifted, I got promoted.” —Kristin Long
“As far as I’m concerned, coming back from having a baby is the same as coming back from having an injury. It feels so cruel because you have to prove yourself all over again. I came back from being pregnant, and I felt as though Helgi hated me—he’d forgotten about me. I made myself suffer more than I needed to because I looked at it as punishment for having had a baby. But it’s not personal. Does it happen that sometimes the boss decides he likes the person who did your part better? Yeah. Does it suck if it happens to you? Yes. But is it wrong? No, it isn’t.”—Katita Waldo
“The father of Tina’s sons, Marco Jerkunica; Katita’s partner, Marshall Crutcher; and Kristin’s first husband, Michael Locicero, all took on the heavy day-to-day parenting and loved it.”—Lucy Gray
“We have these glorious family times together that no other family might enjoy— like Mondays off. On Monday afternoon we pick James up from school, and we go to the zoo together. There’s no one else around, and that’s neat. Or breaks in the day. But Katita’s generally working more than the average working person. That means I’m more the parent on deck, which has been a puzzle for my career, since I’m self-employed.” —Marshall Crutcher, partner of Katita Waldo
“Somebody had to be flexible. It’s as simple as that. There were so many things that happened along the way where I just had no say, and there was no flexibility, particularly after kids. I’m not going to leave my kid with a nanny all the time—that’s just not going to happen. And our marriage survived, which is still unusual in this field. You don’t have a twenty-five-year marriage alone, in a vacuum. Her kids were well taken care of, her needs were taken care of, her cars ran. I supported her. I didn’t smother her with jealousy. I’m not a Backstage Johnny. Most of the husbands who aren’t dancers are always there. To me, that was hers.” —Marco Jerkunica, partner of Tina LeBlanc
“We decided once Kai was born that Kristin wanted to continue dancing, and I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of working on Wall Street for the rest of my life. It was a very stressful job I had. It had taken its toll. So I thought I needed to step up, and I thought it would be better if I raised him. I wanted to be in Kai’s life 100 percent. It worked out because Kristin was so passionate about dancing—she wasn’t ready to give it up. It was so much fun to be an integral part of Kai’s life. I made sure Kristin saw him several times a day, so he was spending a lot of time at the ballet.” —Michael Locicero, former partner of Kristin Long, father of her first child
“The first two years of James’s life turned out to be the busiest years of my life professionally—on top of Katita being away, traveling with the company. Once you’re holding a baby and trying to get work done and your spouse is gone, ten minutes seems epic.”—Marshall Crutcher, partner of Katita Waldo
“Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director and principal choreographer of the SFB, helped each of the dancers financially work out how they could continue at the company. They were grateful for his understanding, which they attributed, at least in part, to his own dedication as a parent.”—Lucy Gray
“For the first months I took Marinko in to the artistic staff at the ballet, and they took care of him while I would take class and rehearse. I said, ‘I’d really like to come back. I’d really like to do this. But if you want me, I’m going to need help,’ and they were willing to take that step. I was the first one. Kai was older, but Kristin wasn’t back. She had been out injured, and she came back the following year, so her baby was already nine months old. I was really lucky; I don’t think they’d be that tolerant now.” —Tina LeBlanc
“Helgi was wonderful. His main concern was that I was making the right life decision. Dancing, shmancing—this was a huge deal! I danced fully through my fourth month. I did Desdemona in Othello.” —Katita Waldo
“This is why it was so brave that Katita, Tina, and Kristin took the risk to pursue what they wanted—and so striking that Tomasson responded with kindness and ingenuity. They each recounted his reaction when they shared their plans to become mothers: “Is this really what you want?” he asked. When they answered, “Yes,” he helped make it possible. He offered Kristin the role of principal dancer, thereby increasing her salary. He cast Tina in roles that allowed her to continue to dance while pregnant (as well as after she gave birth to Marinko), and colleagues in the office babysat until she found a nanny. Katita was also offered help with her schedule to maximize her pay.” —Lucy Gray