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Behind the Scenes: Dancers and Pregnancy

An article by Ysabelle Taylor - published by Dancing Times, July 2010

Despite women's battle for equality with men in many arenas of life during the twentieth century, it is only women who can carry a developing baby and give birth to it. This dilemma has long been a subject for debate, but recently there has been much interest in the ways in which professional dancers manage to combine motherhood with their careers. Both the recent Dance Umbrella debate 'Where are the Women?' and research into Pregnancy and Parenthood, undertaken by Vincent Dance Company and Dance UK, address the conflicts met by female dancers who inevitably need to take some time off from professional duties for childbirth, and then need to juggle childcare with an often haphazard work schedule and physically demanding occupation.

It is clear to see the challenges this poses of time and energy to the dancer who becomes a parent, but what is the experience of the dancer who does not conceive when she hopes to, or loses a pregnancy through miscarriage? There may be many more private tears shed than is acknowledged publicly by those who become pregnant, are afraid to tell their employer for fear of loss of an opportunity, and then miscarry. This could be true of any profession, but it is more poignant for a dancer who lives inside the tool of her trade. Her body is her instrument of expression as an artist but, like an athlete, the condition of her body defines her ability to function professionally and her achievements are measured by her physical performance. There is no excuse that the mechanics didn't tune the engine properly, or the wheel fell off because the nuts weren't bolted tightly enough. The dancer is responsible for the maintenance and smooth operation of her vehicle.

This responsibility is accentuated for the dancer who is torn between career and maternity. Both a dancer's performing life and a woman's fertile life are short. What becomes of the dancer who finds herself infertile? In a recent Radio Times interview Darcey Bussell revealed that becoming pregnant had been difficult for her, and suggested that this was not unusual for a dancer.

Difficulty in achieving a pregnancy and infertility are now well documented and the medical profession has found solutions for many problems, most notably In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Do infertile dancers turn to modern science for help? Science has done much to advance the physical possibilities of both athletes and dancers. It has also acknowledged and investigated the invisible diseases of eating disorders and osteoporosis. There is now much more practical and emotional support for these conditions. Support for the equally invisible conditions of infertility and pregnancy loss could be considered an inappropriate luxury for dancers who, to quote Martha Graham, are 'athletes of God.' Indeed many iconic female dancers in the past, such as Graham, Margot Fonteyn and Anna Pavlova, remained childless. If they had hoped for children, science was limited in the help it could offer; similarly Pilates, body conditioning and counselling were not yet in vogue.

Times have changed and if psychology for dancers is a growing field, all areas of a dancer's life and emotions deserve attention. There is now much support and counselling available for student dancers, injured dancers and dancers in transition who are retiring from a performing career. It is not unreasonable to assume that a number of female dancers are likely to leave the stage with the specific intention of starting a family. In this case such a dancer may completely lose any contribution from the dance world to her well being and successful transition. She may find herself feeling a failure every month that she does not conceive and eventually be at the mercy of the medical profession. The latter may have little understanding of the journey which may have brought her to the doctor's door. Few little girls attending dance lessons dreaming of a professional career actually achieve that goal. To be one of the few and become a professional dancer is only the beginning of a long and potentially arduous path of highs and lows: from the elation of critical acclaim or winning awards, to the misery of injury or losing a role due to being too short or too tall. To then attempt to take on the role of a mother, the one nature designed females to fulfil, and which comes to many by chance or mistake rather than choice, and to fail, is surely deserving of compassion.

It might be at this point that a female dancer realises some of the extraordinary parallels between her life as a dancer and her new situation as an involuntarily childless woman. The dedication, motivation and discipline which were so crucial to becoming a dancer and sustaining a career, whilst also sometimes being overwhelming and negative, now turn their attention to the ticking of the biological clock. The force of nature cannot be controlled by obsessing, but cognitive patterns are hard to change.

Perhaps coping positively with an injury in the past will help a dancer who is waiting to conceive to be patient. On the other hand if it is an injury which caused the end of a career, this further disappointment could be harder to bear. If she appeals to the medical profession for help, does she hand over control of her destiny much as she probably did as a dancer when roles were chosen for her by the company management? Does a dancer's finely tuned sensitivity towards her own body readily accept medical intervention, or does she find it humiliating and upsetting that the body she trained with such perseverance lets her down on the natural act of reproduction?

There are so many unanswered questions and a goldmine of potential research for the future. If these questions are openly addressed the issues of infertility and pregnancy loss in dancers may be acknowledged. Thus avenues would be opened for practical and psychological support for the involuntarily childless dancers as well as those who are parents.
If you are a dancer, or ex-dancer, who has experienced infertility or pregnancy loss and would be interested in taking part in research on these issues, in confidence, please contact Ysabelle who is undertaking research as a visiting Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire and would love to hear from you. You can email her at or telephone 020 8658 5447.
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