Patter of tiny feet: dancers on leaping into motherhood

Followers of Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthbertson cheer ardently for her Juliet, Manon and Sugar Plum Fairy, but are in raptures about her latest role, as mum to baby Peggy, born in December and already the toast of Instagram. Cuthbertson is one of a flurry of dancers at the Royal who are about to give or have recently given birth, in a serendipitously timed lockdown baby boom.

It’s a long way from the early days of the company, when founder Ninette de Valois set the tone. “‘You’re pregnant darling, goodbye!’ That’s how it was,” says Jeanetta Laurence, a dancer in its touring company in the 1960s and 70s. Even now, she says: “It’s hard to think of another industry where having a baby is so intrusive to the work. I’m in awe and wonder at how they manage it.”

Juggling work and parenting is hard in any career, but the demanding hours, unpredictable working patterns and often poor pay, on top of the physical impact, mean dancing parents have challenges. Alongside all the happy baby news at the Royal, five female dancers took voluntary redundancy, almost all of them mothers to young children. “Read into that what you like,” laughs Elizabeth Harrod, former soloist and mother of three, and one of those who left.

Lauren Cuthberton in Swan Lake by the Royal Ballet in March 2020.
Lauren Cuthberton in Swan Lake by the Royal Ballet in March 2020. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

For Harrod, it’s a positive decision. “There’s no question it’s the best thing for us as a family,” she says, “but ultimately it came about from the constant pressures of juggling babies and the job. I could have six shows in one week, coming home at midnight. It makes for long days, especially when you have children that don’t sleep: you come home and you’re up every hour or two then you do it all again.”

She and her husband, principal dancer Steven McRae, hired a live-in nanny, a luxury Harrod admits not everyone can have. “We made it work,” she says, “but third time around, I realised that the personal compromises to myself, in terms of missing time with my children, and the toll it takes, the physical aspect of the job, I had reached my limit.”

The physical effects of pregnancy are one thing, gritting your teeth and dancing through the nausea (Harrod stopped performing early in her first pregnancy, but carried on to five months – with forgiving costumes – for the second). Then there’s navigating the hormone relaxin, which relaxes ligaments in preparation for birth. “I remember doing Les Patineurs and thinking, I have absolutely no sensation of control over my limbs.” But getting back to work is harder. “There’s the sense with this job that you’ve had a baby and you’ll reappear at work with a six-pack and your pointe shoes on,” she says. (That’s a culture change the Royal’s healthcare director Shane Kelly tells me he’s actively tackling.)

‘I still don’t feel “back”’ … Bobbi Jene Smith, centre, in the film Mari, about a dancer discovering she is pregnant.
‘I still don’t feel “back”’ … Bobbi Jene Smith, centre, in the film Mari, about a dancer discovering she is pregnant. Photograph: Andrew Ogilvy

Harrod felt supported by her company, whereas most dancers are freelancers, with no structure to rely on. I spoke to New York dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith while she was pregnant in 2019; she tells me that the birth and its aftermath brought many surprises. “Thinking my body was going to bounce back, for one,” she says. The birth ended in emergency caesarean. “I didn’t anticipate needing to recover from that and I still don’t feel ‘back’. Those muscles have been cut and I feel like that’s where I’ve always danced from. Now it’s finding a new place to dance from.” Nevertheless, Smith was back in the studio after six weeks. “Should I have rested, should I have waited? I’ll never know.”

There’s a psychological impact, too. “After my son was born in 2011, it blew my identity apart,” says London-based dance artist Temitope Ajose-Cutting. “I think it was almost two years before I got my head above water. With my daughter it was four months and I was back in the studio, but the first one, it just blew me away. Who am I? What does my body mean now? Where is security?” The conceptual ideas she explored through her work suddenly felt triflingly abstract. “I’m going to go into this dingy studio and begin to explore the meaning of life via my elbows?!”

Now, though, she carves out space to be an artist and mother, and works with “no faffing about”. “Focus and direction can definitely come, but you’ve got to laugh at the huge amount of chaos, too.” Smith has also felt the effect on her creativity, not being able to get “into the dream zone” for long enough without being interrupted. “But I also think it makes me want to say more, to speak more clearly, because time is precious,” she says. “If this piece is going to be left behind, what does this say to my daughter?”

Smith and Ajose-Cutting have both relied on informal childcare arrangements. When Ajose-Cutting worked with Protein dance company, her daughter was welcomed into rehearsals and crawled around the studio. Kate Prince, artistic director of ZooNation, was back to work soon after having her daughter. “At three months she was asleep on my desk in the rehearsal room, at six months she was strapped to my front while I taught.” She set up a creche next to the rehearsal room, and between her mum, mother-in-law, husband and three friends, their schedule covered six days a week. As the boss, Prince gets to set the terms, but choreographing for others can be more complicated. “I’ve encountered very different attitudes to the fact that I’m a parent and I want to make being a parent a priority,” she says, but she raves about choreographing the musical Everybody’s Talking about Jamie with director Jonathan Butterell.

‘You’ve got to laugh at the chaos’ ... Temitope Ajose-Cutting (kneeling).
‘You’ve got to laugh at the chaos’ … Temitope Ajose-Cutting (kneeling). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Prince had worked on musicals before where she was expected to be available 24/7, “So I pretty much did everything I could to persuade him not to hire me,” she says. “But he kept coming back and saying, well, what would it take?” Their arrangement meant Prince working three days a week. “His attitude was: work’s important, but family’s more important. I was offered another musical not long after that. I said, I want to let you know I’m a parent, I’ve just done this job and this is how we made it work, would you be open to those kind of flexible hours? I was taken out of the running straight away.”

It’s even more difficult for performers, Prince admits. The idea of a West End creche for performers’ children has been long floated, but when you get into the details, it’s not very practical, says Anna Ehnold-Danailov from Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (Pipa). The charity encourages companies to ringfence a budget for childcare on every production, from babysitters at auditions to nannies on tour. Just as important is being open to flexible working, job shares, delayed start times and early finishes.

And fixing schedules well in advance, says Ajose-Cutting. “I’ve had many a rehearsal where I’ve gone, ‘Oh, it’s that week?’, nodding along and internally having the largest meltdown of my life because it means reorganising at least six different people.”

Kate Prince.
Kate Prince. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company tours for nine months at a time, and they’ve had a couple in the company take their baby and a nanny with them. Hofesh Shechter took his children on tour when they were young and his company has a “children on tour” policy, covering the expenses of bringing a carer and providing family rooms. “In our company I haven’t met a dancer yet that didn’t want to get back on the stage,” says Colette Hansford, Shechter’s executive producer. “We know with dancers how instrumental they are to the work that you produce. We can’t lose those creative and wonderful minds.”

A recent Pipa survey found that with the impact of Covid, seven out of ten respondents were considering leaving working in the arts. Ehnold-Danailov is concerned about the implications for diversity and gender equality, and how that would affect leadership in an industry where there are fewer female directors and choreographers at the top level.

“There’s this myth that artists sell their soul to their art and there’s nothing more,” says Harrod. “That’s not true. People do have families, or even other interests. Flexible working isn’t straightforward, of course, but it is possible.” Harrod admits previously “not wanting to rock the boat by opening my mouth”, but in hindsight, she says, “It’s up to us to start making those changes.”

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