This spring, I will have surgery to correct hip dysplasia. It’s a complicated procedure, involving breaking of pelvic bone, much blood loss and fixing that bone in place with surgical steel pins. Hip dysplasia, especially in dancers, comes with an increased risk of labral tears and other sorts of shredding of the tender system of ligaments and tendons that support the body’s joints. Dysplasia also puts you at increased risk for being an excellent ballet dancer, and of soaring through the air through more triumphant saut-de chats than you care to recall as you contemplate your now torn tissue.
And so it is that a weakness—in this case a joint that floats too loosely in its socket—is also a strength. It is not a far leap from this realization to a greater one about another activity many women engage in: mothering. Sometimes, when I lie in bed reading to my child, I watch the clock’s minute hand tick alarmingly close to 9: 30 or 10:00 pm. When we are still reading stories and I have failed to enforce a bedtime, I remember: a weakness is often a strength. I have a weakness for breaking rules. My child may not get enough sleep, but she is learning how to enjoy a moment and to break free of a clock. Many would find fault with my approach—we live in a time of criticism and complaint, especially when it comes to maternal choices—but I can’t seem to care. My weakness is my strength, just as my dysplasic hip was my secret weapon on stage.
There’s a book out called “Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers.” A photographer named Lucy Gray shot and compiled a decade’s worth of photos and recruited three dancers to write essays to accompany those photos.
Lucy Gray did not always think highly of ballet dancers.
“As a proud feminist,” Gray writes in the introduction, “I once held negative, unfounded beliefs about ballerinas. I viewed them as self-centered and self-destructive—chain smokers who drove themselves to maintain the skinny bodies of little girls. Their single-minded devotion to their craft seemed akin to an addiction, and I was disturbed by their apparent willingness to starve themselves for the approval of male directors, as part of a culture that glorified sacrifice as essential to the artistic process.”
This vitriol is no mere side note. Undoing her own misconceptions about dancers seems to be Gray’s chief motivation in creating this glorious book. But the final product is not merely an ode to dancers, or to mothers, but a way to suss out a sad truth: if you are a woman, you will be both the target of baseless judgment and the object of glorification.
Dancers and mothers, in the popular imagination, are so romantic, aren’t they?
Women must not only fight for their careers and choices, they must do so from inside the prison of society’s endless speculation and commentary. Both motherhood and ballet dancing are trapped inside mythologies. Motherhood’s mythology is made up of so many women’s magazines and photo shoots, but it doesn’t require glamour lighting to sparkle. The reality of motherhood is still beautiful.
Our society often uses the grace of the ballet dancer as a standard by which to measure elegance and refinement. The angelic mother created in Victorian literature, too, is still a cultural touch point. But ballet dancers are also frequently under attack: we are too thin, we are willingly infantilized, we are brainwashed, and we certainly can’t be getting our periods! On ballet dancers strive beneath visceral contempt. Similarly, we don’t need to reach past any parenting web site to find people attacking mothers for breastfeeding in public (vulgar, showy, and selfish) or for bottle-feeding (dangerous, lazy, and selfish.) or any number of other things mothers do in front of a thousand outraged witnesses at Starbucks.
Enter “Balancing Acts,” which focuses on ballerinas maintaining their careers after motherhood. Gray testifies to the moment when the idea of such a profile struck her.
“In the fall of 1999, while shopping at a local market, I met Katito Waldo, a prima ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet,” she writes. “I couldn’t miss noticing her; she was thin and pale—she looked destitute—and was carrying her infant. But as I got closer, her skin seemed to glow under her halo of red hair. I was with my three-year-old son and his friend, who introduced us: the child and the dancer were neighbors.”
Gray’s portraits are daring: we see Kristin Long entering an MRI machine, wandering her hospital room naked and in the throes of labor, scrubbing her son’s hair while they sit together in a tub of soapy water. She gives us the romantic images as well—soaring jumps and made-up faces and tutus and tiaras—but the relentless undercurrent of this collection of photos is that dancers—and mothers—are made of flesh and blood, not fairy dust. It shouldn’t be a subversive statement in 2015, but somehow it is.
I was diagnosed with my second labral tear last autumn, and as I write, the calendar pages turn toward the surgical removal of my ruptured tissue and the shifting of my hip bones to correct my anatomical flaw—dysplasia. In the meantime, I have moments of great pain. I also have a four-year-old child whose nervous system is so attuned to her surroundings that I often can’t wake to go to the bathroom at night without her waking also, and calling for me.
One recent night tested me. I woke up from a dream in which a murderer was sawing into my hip capsule with a serrated knife. The dream wasn’t a metaphor for my surgery; it was my sleeping brain trying to explain a surge in pain—pain so intense it broke through unconsciousness. Perhaps I had been sleeping in a bad position. I woke up sweating. I quietly rose and crept toward the bathroom, turning the tap to start the hottest water I could bear flowing into the tub. I placed two (pointless) Advil in my mouth and scooped up water from the bathroom sink with my hands. As I dipped my toe into the searing water, I heard my daughter cry out. I next heard my husband trying to calm her, but for ten minutes, while the hot water worked its magic, my daughter wailed for me. Finally, I could no longer tolerate her distress. I gathered myself in a towel and plopped down beside her in bed. I held her hand and as her tears dried, mine began to run—from physical distress. As I quietly wept, I told her not to be afraid of Mommy’s surgery. She had had splinters taken out before, right? That was what Mommy was having done. And when I was off my crutches, by summer’s end, I would be running faster even than she could. This challenge was a mother’s calculation: it distracted her from her fear and she argued with me about our upcoming race.
I will never forget those fifteen minutes of getting her back to sleep. I wanted so much to be in the hot bath still. I wanted so much to hold my child’s hand and ease her anxiety. I chose to do the latter. I held her hand long after she fell asleep. I took something stronger for pain then, and eventually, intertwined with my dozing child, I fell asleep myself.
It is touching to find a former hater of ballet dancers bonding with them and illustrating their complex lives in “Balancing Acts.” That Gray, who previously held a withering view of a glorious art form, is also a mother who photographs mothers adds to the richness of the final product. Further, that the women she photographs write their own stories to accompany her marvelous pictures vividly demonstrates Gray’s arc. She journeys from illiteracy to expertise over the ten years she spends with these dancers; she travels from ignorant contempt to wisdom. This wisdom is encapsulated in the platform she provides. Gray has built another stage on which ballet dancers may express themselves—her literal and richly symbolic offer of support.
“There is no such thing as happiness; you just have to be happy without it.” This was one of my mother’s favorite refrains. The same can be said of “life balance.” There is no such thing as balance; you just have to be balanced without it.
A dancer hovers in a grand jeté over her toddler in a rehearsal hall. This is the cover image of “Balancing Acts,” and it arrests.
The metaphors are many. One, a woman has incorporated her child— literally—into her work life by using the child as a goal post for a jump. Two, she is—literally, again—bounding over the obstacle the child presents—a jump every mother is familiar with when she returns to work after giving birth.
A grand jeté is a magic trick. It is an illusion that requires muscle and athleticism of the highest order—the leap is supported by fleshly power, but for the jeté to be successful, it must pull of a complex tromphe l’oeil comprising both musical phrasing and a mastery of the mechanics of potential energy. Only the most artful of dancers can phrase this step (by being just a half beat behind the music and then springing like an uncoiling cat into the air) to create the illusion that she is indeed hovering. She is not, of course. Humans do not fly. But through calculation we can train our bodies to smudge the visual realities of physics and make believers of an audience. In truth, the dancer is always in motion—she may be on her way up or on her way down; she never actually hovers, but a perfectly executed grand jeté makes her seem supernaturally capable of doing just that.
Appearing to “balance” motherhood and career is also the effect of illusion, which is why the image of the grand jeté resonates. It is through Herculean effort that a dancer, and a mother, seems capable of hovering weightlessly between opposing interests.
Dancers are ethereal; mothers are of the Earth. Dancers are weightless; mothers carry forty or more pounds of gestational weight and ten pounds of lactating breasts. (I remember the feeling of a second person still inhabiting my body after my child was born—for a time, this second self was fluid—soaking my tissues with water, blood, and milk. I remember not being able to see my stomach because my lactating breasts ballooned to cartoon-like proportions, especially for my five foot frame.) Dancers exist in fairytales, lit in glimmering floodlights; mothers trod through the day fretting over the dark circles beneath their eyes.
The three mothers examined in “Balancing Acts” are dancers and mothers. They warm up their muscles in the rehearsal hall while their newborns lie on the top of the piano; they pump milk at intermission, balancing a breast pump on the fold of a tutu.
Underneath the illusions we all spin in life and those a dancer spins on stage is the truth, which is even more captivating. Sinew and muscle and compromise and loneliness and longing and regret and snatched moments of affection and joy and leaving a child crying at daycare and losing a role because your hormones don’t let you gain enough muscle after childbirth and having an unexpected afternoon with your toddler when a rehearsal is cancelled: all these things make up the reality underpinning the life of a mother who is also a ballet dancer.
“Balancing Acts” portrays another type of balance: that between two spouses caring for a household and child.
Lucy Gray once thought of ballet dancers as anti-feminist creatures. But in her book we find portraits of husbands who have put their careers on hold to care for children, who have sacrificed privacy that their female partners may achieve glory on stage, and who do a lot of laundry and housework. In these couplings between dancers and their spouses, we see two versions of flexible: the female spouse who stretches her body on stage, and the male spouse who decides to—for a time—put aside his ambition to further that of his partner.
In Balancing Acts we find husbands and wives demonstrating two types of grace, as well, that of the ballet dancer and that of her supporting player. There is arguably imbalance here, but the book describes much swinging of the pendulum over the years of each marriage. Spouses in pursuit of balance must often take turns.
Of course not all mothers are dancers, not literally. But in Gray’s book we see the struggle of all modern mothers as we witness dancers navigating their offstage lives and their performances. Attending to competing interests, pulling rabbits out of hats, turning up the music and hoping no one will notice if we fail to land a turn: this is the stuff of modern motherhood.
A ballet dancer begins all classes in a line at a barre—military style—warming up her muscles, alternating between quick movements and ample stretches to prepare her body for the work in the center: the real dancing. Perhaps if there is any balance in motherhood, it can be found in the shifting between warming up at home and performing on the stage of life. Motherhood might also be defined as hovering eternally between domestic duties and those of a career—just as the dancer seems to hover eternally in her grand jeté.
Dancers use their instinctive knowledge of physics to create the illusion of subverting it. But this is more than we should be asking of mothers. There is no such thing as balance; you just have to be balanced without it. So what sort of balance ought a mother to strive for?
Yesterday, my child fell and scraped her knee on the playground. Her playmates ran off and quickly occupied the only two empty swings. My daughter wept; not from the scrape on her knee, but because her fall had resulted in the careless social exclusion in which four-year-olds are so good at engaging. I pulled her up on my broken hip and sat with her on the bench, holding her while she struggled against her sense that the whole world was against her. Really, is an adult so different when she suffers a stroke of bad luck? All those years of my own extreme sensitivity are now the materials out of which I build scaffolding for my daughter’s pain. I do not seek to stop up the pipe, but to be a reservoir for her tears.
Striving for balance in our mothering is ultimately not like creating the perfect grand jeté. The latter is an art; the former is a fool’s errand. Better mothers put their emotional and physical resources toward the achievable: fulfillment, joy, and being fully alive, with all its pain, triumph, and defeat.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and dancer in New York City. She has written for Salon, Vela Magazine, The Washington Post,The Toast, Word Riot, Brain,Child Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Off The Shelf and others. You can find her at www.lesliekendalldye.net and on twitter, at https://twitter.com/LKendallDye.