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.
“The dance career is so short, so you want to dance as much as you can,” explains Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Tisserand, who had her second baby in August. “Unfortunately you have to think about, If I go out right now, are my roles still going to be there when I come back? There’s constantly a younger generation that’s coming up.”
Choosing when to give up valuable performance time means selecting which opportunities to sacrifice. Lauren Fadeley Veyette thought about things like which ballets were scheduled next season and what she could stand to miss out on. Merchant, Tisserand’s colleague at Pacific Northwest Ballet, also worried about whether she’d ever be able to dance as she did before she had a child. “I considered retiring before I had a baby so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting back into shape.”
It’s not just in dancers’ heads or even some unwritten rule—the idea that they need to be ready to jump back into performance. Pacific Northwest Ballet—which both Merchant and Tisserand described as family-friendly—gives dancers up to five months of leave, but that is rare in the ballet world. “You have to think about coming back physically too,” Tisserand says. “How is the road back going to be? It’s not like you’re going back to sitting at a desk. We have to make sure our bodies are in tip-top shape.”
Fadeley Veyette at Miami City Ballet had an extra month to recover from her C-section—closer to four months instead of the standard 12 weeks—because of the COVID restrictions at her company. “My pelvis does not want to stay in alignment and it pulls my groin,” she says. “I wondered the first week if I’d ever been able to walk again,” she says. “And I was trying not to put pressure on myself about coming back because I didn’t know what would happen. As a dancer, releasing all control is hard, but it’s what I had to do.”
Virtual classes meant a more gentle return. “I could turn my video off,” Fadeley Veyette recalls. “I started off slowly, doing regular exercises, walking around my house in my pointe shoes to get my feet used to it. People say the body remembers, and I didn’t believe them, but then it just did.” Eventually she tried a double pirouette on pointe and was surprised and relieved to be able to do it. The transition back to work itself was easier on her too. “My first day back in the studio was everybody’s first day back in the studio,” Fadeley Veyette points out. “So we were coming back at a slower pace together.”
“A slower pace” has characterized a lot of dancers’ routine during the COVID era—whether they’re pregnant or not. Lack of regular access to studios has meant dancers are confined to their homes, using their kitchen counters as a barre during daily Zoom classes, and limiting combinations to ones that can be achieved in the limited space of their living rooms. But for pregnant dancers, dancing through a rough first trimester is more than cramped. It’s painful. Verdecia was teaching online classes for Ballet Hispanico when morning sickness hit her. “It was rough. I started taking Pilates privates [instead]. My teacher helped with my pelvic floor, and that helped in my recovery. If it had been a normal year, I would have taken ballet up until the end, but I took other forms of exercise.” Verdecia swam as much as she could to supplement her Pilates work but knows she has a long road ahead of her to be able to dance as she did before her COVID pregnancy.
During pregnancy, the body releases a hormone called relaxin, which relaxes ligaments in preparation for childbirth. “Everything is so much looser,” says Dimension Dance Theatre of Miami’s Chloe Freytag, who rolled her ankle mid-pirouette while pregnant. While she’d normally push herself to dance through the pain, she decided to take a beat and tune in to her body. “My pelvis is a disaster,” she concedes. “Tendus hurt because I can feel all my bones moving. Some days I feel awesome and…can jump and turn, but it’s important to remember it’s not normal. I have to slow it down and be more gentle.”
For artists and athletes who are used to having a body that does what it’s told, the toll of pregnancy and its aftermath can be destabilizing. But it can also be revelatory. While photographing the San Francisco Ballet dancers for Balancing Acts, Lucy Gray was surprised that dancers improved after having children.
“When I started, I thought that the story would be how difficult it was for these women to be ballerinas and mothers—how impossible it was,” she says. “But they got better reviews after having kids.”
Verdecia just took her first class after having her son, and was “elated” by the experience. “I feel like I have a more mature awareness of my body—simple things like a balance, or how I engage my core,” she says. “Something really does change when you become a mom. You have a sixth sense, and it adds a different texture to your dancing.” Chloe Freytag agrees. “I’ve worked with choreographers who prefer working with dancers who have a child because they’ve discovered their bodies twice,” she says.
Conversations have begun to shift from how impossible it is to have a child as a ballet dancer to how to make it work.
COVID—with slightly more predictable schedules and a slower return to performing—might just offer a blueprint. Several companies are keeping dancers in pods of four or five to reduce the number of dancers in the studio at once, allowing some to take class in the morning and some to take class in the afternoon. “Yesterday I went to class, drove home and watched the baby, went back to rehearsal, then drove back home, gave her dinner, put her down for bed. I got to do everything I wanted to do today being a dancer and a mom. That wouldn’t be normal” in non-COVID times,” Fadeley Veyette explains. “I’m not taking any of it for granted.”
And while much more work remains to be done, of course, especially when it comes to the myth of “bouncing back” after the physical trauma of giving birth, the COVID-induced ballet baby boom may force a reckoning that could have reverberations far outside the elite art form. “There’s such an interlocking culture between society at large and body image,” says Merchant, “and those overlap in how society treats women postpartum. A shift in the culture would be nice for women overall.”
Ellen O’Connell Whittet is a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara and the author of What You Become in Flight, a memoir about ballet and injury.
Originally Appeared on Glamour