Ballet Dancers Are Making the Most of the Pandemic—By Having Babies
Connecting the Dots – #YesThisIsAnArtsStory Repost from Glamour
Ellen O’Connell Whittet | 19 April 2021
Melissa Verdecia always knew she wanted a baby, but as a dancer with Ballet Hispanico, she also knew getting pregnant would mean significant time off from a career that depends entirely on her body. It was easy to postpone—after the next tour, she told herself, or when she got a coveted role.
Then in March 2020, Ballet Hispanico stopped all in-person operations when New York City entered its COVID-19 lockdown. Verdecia and her husband—Ballet Hispanico dancer Lyvan Verdecia—were laid off along with the rest of the company’s dancers. It was a full-blown crisis—with one unexpected upside. Their schedules were wide open.
“Although financially it wasn’t as optimal, we had the time,” Melissa Verdecia recalls. “One day I said, “Lyvan, maybe this is the time.” Nine months later their son Liam was born, a month earlier than expected.
“Nowadays I have the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom, and to nurse on demand,” Verdecia says. “If we were with the company, Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturday, we dance 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We would tour, and it’s exhausting.” COVID-19 has allowed Verdecia to be the mother she had longed to be—something her ballet career had, until now, put on hold.
Outside of the ballet world, the pandemic is shaping up to mean a huge drop in births in the U.S. and other countries. But in the universe of dance, a COVID-induced baby boom is underway. In January, New York City Ballet dancer Megan Fairchild revealed she was pregnant with twins. That same week, American Ballet Theater’s Lauren Post announced she was expecting her second child and NYCB’s Teresa Reichlen shared news of the birth of her first. Pacific Northwest Ballet had two dancers give birth within a few months—Leah Merchant and Laura Tisserand. Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Ingrid Silva had a daughter in November, and Miami City Ballet’s Lauren Fadeley Veyette had one in June. The timing suggests that many dancers came to the same conclusion. They were already losing valuable career time to COVID-19. Why not have a baby now and avoid another major career disruption?
A career in ballet lasts only as long as a dancer’s body does. If they’re lucky, dancers can perform into their 30s—or in rare cases, into their 40s. When every season counts, taking time off to get pregnant, give birth, and recover is daunting. The challenge of professional dancers having children is the subject of photographer Lucy Gray’s Balancing Acts, a book in which she documents three dancer mothers at San Francisco Ballet and their transformations as artists after giving birth. In 2015, when Balancing Acts was published, Gray told The Cut, “Many ballerinas are afraid to have kids, and the directors don’t encourage it…. If something happens to their bodies, they can lose their job.”
But COVID-19 has cost many dancers their jobs already, at least temporarily. Freed from the stage—and the scrutiny on their bodies—they are spending their time transforming from dancer to dancer and mother. It’s something that, until now, has only happened in the margins of the art form.
“This is not about ballerinas,” Gray writes in Balancing Acts. “This is about women working.” Ballet is an elite art form, but it is not so different from the rest of the world when it comes to the false choice working mothers have without structural and societal support: career or babies. The Royal Ballet’s Ninette Valois reportedly told dancers, “You’re pregnant darling, goodbye!” In Balancing Acts, Gray writes that Balanchine told one of his dancers, “Now, Allegra, no more babies. Enough is enough. Babies are for Puerto Ricans.”
While attitudes have shifted over time and unionization in dance companies over a certain size means basic protections for workers, dancers are still expected to return from leave in dancing shape. In her forthcoming book Turning Pointe, the journalist Chloe Angyal writes that such expectations demand that dancers work on their time off. Having a child under normal circumstances in taxing. Having one and then having to use the time you should spend recovering to get back into dancing form is brutal.