In 2012, I saw Patricia West dance pregnant in Joe Goode’s When We Fall Apart. I was pregnant myself at the time and thought, Damn! I can barely get out of my car! When I put out the call for stories about dancing pregnant, I expected to hear about the task of modifying movement (floor work in particular), the audible gasps from audience members (like me) when they realize this is not a Cunningham-Kawakubo collaboration, running off stage to barf, and splitting costumes on stage. What follows is what I didn’t expect.
Even modern dancers hide pregnancies
Dance critic Arlene Croce called ballet a world of “signs and designs,” a world in which “[t]he arabesque is real, the leg is not” (see footnote 1). It’s rather difficult to be a sign and design when things start getting bumpy, and there’s nothing like pregnancy to make a belly real. Former Oakland Ballet dancer Milissa Payne Bradley writes, “Once I found out I was pregnant, it only made sense to hide it as long as possible. Being ‘fat’ felt like a death sentence concerning my dance career and stability as a working dance professional.”
I liked to think that modern dance would be more forgiving. But many modern dancers talked about hiding their pregnancies from choreographers for fear that they would be asked to modify movement or, worse, postpone performing. Lisa Bush Finn worked with a choreographer in New York on a piece that was set to premiere when she was 18 weeks: “I decided not to tell my colleagues and to keep doing all the inversions and floor work and leave the well-being of the creature inside me to fate.”
Dana Lawton describes hiding her pregnancy from her mentor, Janice Garrett: “I was afraid that if I told her, she would cut some of my stuff. I was in every single piece, I had solos in every piece, and there were a lot of lifts and a lot of running around. I told Janice after the run. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18 and was basically told I was wasting my time, so to be with her and feel like, wow, I’m actually really doing it, I didn’t want to jeopardize it.”
Dancing pregnant gives dancers a sense of control over a body out of control
Given their close relationship, I asked Lawton why she assumed Garrett would have that reaction: “I think I was just nervous that all of sudden she would have to worry about me. And there was the young ego—I can handle it, I’m fine, I’m in charge of my body all the time, I have mastered all of these things. I’m in total control!”
Lawton’s words resonated with several dancers. Still, several dancers found that dancing pregnant gave them back a sense of control. Mira-Lisa Katz, editor of Moving Ideas, a book on embodied learning, writes, “What stands out to me is that dancing is still, to some extent, an experience on one’s own terms. Pregnancy might slow you down or make you move in different ways, but you are still more in control of your own experience then you might be, say, doing things in public. When I was about six months pregnant, a middle-aged man looked down at my protruding stomach, and said, ‘Well we all know what you’ve been doing!’ What I realized during my pregnancy was that being in public, your body was no longer your own.
I was grateful during my pregnancy to have dance as a safe haven where I could continue to experience myself more or less on my own terms, and continue to be my own body’s friend through the dance.”
Toni Melaas, a New York-based dancer who is currently touring with Faye Driscoll, writes, “The way I handled the out of control nature of pregnancy was almost always through moving to remind myself that I still had the control to connect to myself and express through this body that has always been my happy/safe place.”
Dancing pregnant helps reframe the dancer’s relationship to her dancing body
Rebecca Chun, founding member of Mid to West Dance Collective (who wrote to me at 41 weeks!), claims dancing pregnant as a corrective for the fragile dancer ego: “As my mobility and balance decreased with the increasing size of my belly, my perspective on imperfections changed. Instead of seeing inabilities as deficiencies, instead of changing, fixing, improving, I enjoyed the acceptance of doing exactly what I could. I finally reached a respite from this thinking and saw my abilities as a matter of fact. This, in turn, allowed me to see my dancing effort as a beautiful offering to myself, the health of my baby, and an opportunity to be in community.”
Performing pregnant also affords the aspiring dancers in the audience a chance to rethink the “ideal dancing body” and imagine a dance career that doesn’t preclude motherhood. Carol Kueffer-Moore and Peggy Peloquin were pregnant at the same time on tour with David Dorfman Dance. Kueffer-Moore remembers being asked questions in post-show talks at colleges about what it was like to dance pregnant: “Young college students seemed to want to be reassured that one could be a professional dancer and still have children. It was unusual to see pregnant dancers and I think both of us wanted to make a strong point that, yes, it was all possible.”
The Bay Area is full of choreographers who embrace rather than tolerate the pregnant dancing body!
When Jill Randall became pregnant with her second child, choreographer Nina Haft asked to work with her on a solo with the express purpose of investigating how her movement changed as her pregnancy progressed. Moved by Nina’s interest in her morphing embodiment, Jill said, “It was this really special opportunity to fully embrace being pregnant. I remember things about heat, slowness, anticipation, breathing. That solo, The Wake of Your Dive, only existed during that point of time, nobody else has ever done it. I danced it eight months pregnant, which was incredibly hard. We made the piece over four months—how drastically my body changed!”
Like Haft, Joe Goode worked with instead of against Damara Ganley’s pregnancy, weaving the pregnancy “into the ‘character’ and movement development.” Ganley (who wrote to me at 35 weeks!) says, “I performed throughout my first pregnancy including a six-week performance run of Poetics of Space with Joe Goode well into my third trimester. I began the rehearsal process at 7 weeks pregnant and was in my 36th week when the show closed. Joe was open and supportive of adjustments made along the way when I found my body had shifted in ways that didn’t accommodate a particular movement sequence. I am fortunate to work with a choreographer that I can offer different things to—not just the capacity to perform high velocity or technically impressive sequences.”
Choreographer and Interim Chair of Dance in the Department of Physical Education at UC Berkeley, Sue Li-Jue, danced pregnant with June Watanabe, a mother herself who supported Li-Jue’s endeavor. She also danced “fully pregnant” with Dance Brigade: “It was total girl power the whole time and I loved it.” Whereas dancers used to just “disappear when pregnant and then come back well after the baby was older,” Krissy Keefer begged her to bring the baby on tour.
Pregnant dancers have mixed feelings about watching pregnant dancers
Ganley remembers seeing Yayoi Kambara dancing pregnant with ODC and “just being in awe. It made a big impact on me visually and emotionally and has stayed with me for years. I remember being struck by her freedom and full out dancing.” Still, she is aware that the pregnant body “carries with it such potent cultural narratives” and admits that she is not particularly “drawn to choreography that is just about being pregnant or being a mother. In some works I felt that there was a drive to universalize and idealize the experience in a way that I found unappealing artistically.”
Li-Jue had a similar response: “Well, maybe I am old school, but unless there is a reason for the dancer being pregnant on stage (like the piece is about that or related to motherhood), I don’t need to see that. It would be distracting to the piece. However, if I knew and liked the dancer, I would probably be, Oh, that is so sweet…”
Chun expressed a newfound respect for the pregnant dancer: “I’ve always enjoyed it as a gift from the pregnant mother. But now as a pregnant woman and knowing how depleted energy levels can be, how difficult it is to fit in work, sleep, self-care, AND dancing, I look at pregnant dancers performing as super heroes and/or a touch crazy.”
This article focused on performing while pregnant. But Ganley reminded me that we should consider the “other elements of the reproductive cycle/reality” for dancers. Miscarriage, abortion, fertility treatments, birth, motherhood, losing a child—we dance through all of these experiences. In fact, the female dancer’s first crisis often comes with puberty. As Dawn Holtan recounts, “I did RAD [Royal Academy of Dance] ballet from six to 16 until I got the little, ‘We want you to keep a diary of everything you eat’ talk. I took advanced modern at UC Berkeley with David Wood, and he gave me his version of the talk, ‘Your joint health will be greatly improved if you never go above a certain weight. You better stay light.’”
Also, in large part due to my own dance history, my inquiry wound up centered around Western dance practices that are positioned in relation to theatrical performance. My questions posed to pregnant dancers engaged in non-Western practices, or global traditions that are not built for the stage, most likely would have elicited different stories and raised other concerns.
And then there are intersectional issues that further complicate how pregnant dancers navigate their dancing identities. LaWanda Raines, former dancer with the Latin Ballet of Virginia, writes, “Being a dancer and pregnant added to the mountain of challenges I already face at the many intersections of life: African American, female, single. It was expected that I would drop out of the program and then college and only one professor supported my return as foregone conclusion. Dance life did not stop, but it added new logistical and emotional challenges.”
Dancing while pregnant affords artists and audiences an opportunity to reframe not only the image of the dancing body, but the entire concept of mastery. Many forms of dance collaborate with the view that the dancer can no longer be the master of her body once she becomes the incubator for another life. But pregnant dancing exposes our mortality, the reality of change, the fluidity, and the fluids that none of us are exempt from. We can only master so much for so long. And so, pregnant dancing invites us to let go of mastery and focus on practice in the present— this is my body now, it moves this way, I will tend to it, and let it teach me what it knows. As step-dancer Evie Ladin puts it, “The body is amazing how it can produce a child and never be the same again. Makes it hard to think about the stereotypical dancer’s body after that, as it seems unattainable again. And yet, the dancing continues.”
1. Croce, Arlene. “The Two Trockaderos,” The New Yorker, 10/14/1974. In Writing in the Dark, 67.