If a test of civilization be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power. – HARRIET MARTINEAU from “Society in America” (1837)
Times change, societies progress and things get better. In 1952, the word “pregnancy” could not even be uttered on American television; today, the sight of a baby emerging from its mother’s vagina is an everyday occurrence on The Learning Channel. Ballet company directors used to say things to dancers like: “No more babies. Enough is enough. Babies are for Puerto Ricans.” Ballet company directors now say things like: “Children are part of the human condition. We need to have women who have [given] birth to portray characters with depth.”
What has caused these remarkable changes in America? Feminism and the loosening of Puritanical values have played an important part, as has the fact that 74% of mothers are in the labor force. “Historically, women have borne and raised children while doing their share of necessary productive labor, as a matter of course. Yet by the nineteenth century the voices rise against the idea of the ‘working mother’ and in praise of the ‘mother at home’” writes Adrienne Rich in her seminal feminist work Of Woman Born. She goes on: “The nineteenth and twentieth century ideal of the mother and children immured together in the home, the specialization of motherhood for women, the separation of the home from the man’s world of wage earning, struggle, ambition, aggression, power…all this is a late arrived development in human history.” Female dancers and choreographers have long ignored these “raised voices” and “historical ideals.” Choreographers Branislava Nijinska, Isadora Duncan, Doris Humphrey and Twyla Tharp and dancers Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Sylvia Waters and Natalia Makarova have studded the pages of dance history with prototypes of the “having it all” superwoman.
How did these women combine motherhood with a career as demanding as dance? Each forged a new path and found support in different ways, from a spouse to an extended family to a nanny to an understanding company director. Shockingly, the American Guild of Musical Artists did not add a maternity clause to its contracts until 1990; until very recently, even dancers in unionized companies have had to rely on the largesse of their company director if they wanted to have a child and keep their job.
In this article I will examine three major American dance companies: New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theater. I will look at the origins, history and leadership of each company to find its unique “motherhood culture.” Certain attitudes, beliefs, experiences and policies have produced threads running through each company’s history. These threads from the past continue to form the current fabric that supports dancing mothers; each of the companies is a little “civilization” and can be “tested” accordingly.
NEW YORK CITY BALLET
Rarely has a figure in the dance world been so reviled and so loved as George Balanchine. Long an easy target for feminists and disgruntled dancers, he has been accused of everything from causing anorexia in all dancers to “denying women their agency” and producing “sado-masochistic” choreography. Merrill Ashley thought that “Balanchine held the keys to the kingdom. All knowledge, all power was his and, as I saw it, I had no choice but to place my faith and trust in him.”
This king was a jealous one, and his ballerinas agreed. “No babies, no husbands, no boyfriends,” was Balanchine’s unwritten rule. Merrill Ashley remembered his “notorious aversion to the husbands and boyfriends of his female dancers.” The truth of the matter is that there were New York City Ballet dancers who did have boyfriends, did get married, and did have children. Melissa Hayden, who had two children while dancing for Balanchine, has said that although “there was an underlying feeling at New York City Ballet that dancers shouldn’t get married or have children, he was very generous to the dancers who did have children – giving them time off and keeping them on the payroll.”
Balanchine was outspokenly opposed to unionization, and the atmosphere of subtle dehumanization he created seemed to make his dancers passive and apathetic about salary, benefits and other union matters. Although Balanchine is dead, his legacy lives on. Currently, the New York City Ballet offers its dancers the least generous maternity benefits of the companies researched for this article.
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER
Section 13, subsection H, paragraph 9 of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the American Guild of Musical Artists states: “The Employer will provide space at its New York Studios during two (2) weeks each year, as selected by the Employer, for children of the Artists with a paid caregiver during the rehearsal day. The Employer shall provide a total of Four hundred fifty ($450.00) per week to subsidize the expense incurred by the parent(s). This childcare providing paragraph is unique among the dance company contracts examined for this paper. The maternity benefit offered by the Ailey Company is also far more generous than the bare minimum suggested by the American Guild of Musical Artists. The Ailey dancers are allowed up to 21 days of sick leave, followed by extended sick pay of $250 per week for six months, followed by a four month unpaid leave. Dancers are guaranteed re-employment “without loss of seniority.” The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s contract illustrates Andrea O’Reilly’s contention that “mothers and motherhood are valued by, and central to, African American culture…black culture recognizes that mothers and mothering are what make possible the physical and psychological well-being and empowerment of African American people and the larger African American culture.”
The Ailey dancers were listened to and were “encouraged to be outspoken.” Historically, the company “gathered regularly to air difficulties and differences of opinion, or simply, as Sylvia Waters put it, ‘to tell Alvin how we felt, how we needed him to tell us what he was seeing, what we were doing.’” Judith Jamison, prior director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, continues to “listen to what the dancers are saying onstage as well as off.” She writes: “Alvin never wanted dancers to be parochial-minded. You have nothing to offer on stage unless you’ve lived your life. He encouraged everyone to experience his or her life.” This Africanist spirit of acceptance, care, humanity and love is reflected in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s generous support of pregnant dancers and new parents.
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
The maternity leave offered to the dancers at American Ballet Theatre is the most generous of the companies researched for this article. The reason for this is the unique relationship between dancers and management at this particular company. American Ballet Theater was not the result of one artist’s vision, as New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater were. “Ballet Theatre has had no single choreographer whose development could be traced through the years. When its founders opted to present an eclectic repertory, they in effect declared that Ballet Theatre would not be bound by any set artistic policy in the generally accepted meaning of the words,” writes Charles Payne. Although Lucia Chase was very important in the founding and bankrolling of ABT, she never inspired in her dancers the kind of devotion and loyalty lavished on Balanchine and Ailey by theirs. Still, she, “for better or worse, made most of the vital decisions that dictated the course of the company’s progress through the years.”
“In the fall of 1979, the dancers at the ABT took a historic step. With the aid of an energetic labor lawyer, Leonard Leibowitz, they decided to reject the offer of small increases in salary and benefits put forth by the ABT management during contract negotiations. In response ABT locked the dancers out of their studios and cancelled its winter season. Dancers and management haggled for eight weeks, during which – for the first time in ballet history – dancers brought their cause to the public, as they picketed, leafleted, negotiated and stated their case to newspapers, television and radio.” The dancers had raised a strike fund to support themselves and they voted unanimously on every offer from management. Finally, the dancers prevailed and “their actions have resulted in significant changes in wages and working conditions at the ABT.” Subsequent contract negotiations netted the dancers even more concessions and benefits. At last, sure of their power, the American Ballet Theatre dancers eventually left AGMA to form their own union. Now, guaranteed a generous maternity leave and a job when they return, dancers like Julie Kent can say: “I’m so looking forward to raising a baby in the ABT family.”
Times have indeed changed. In her 2005 article on American Ballet Theatre Erika Kinetz writes: “Today dancing during pregnancy and after childbirth, once a privilege of only the grandest stars, is unexceptional.” Many women today, dancers included, choose to “have [their] kids while, not instead of following [their] other dreams.” Although star dancers in the past have successfully blended motherhood with their careers, they were dependent on paternalistic permission and special generosity from their bosses. Strong union regulations have allowed the rank and file company members the same opportunity to “have it all.”
Things do indeed get better, yet in America women’s reproductive freedom is under constant threat. Women will never have equal status until they have control over their own family planning and the full support of a society which values working mothers and their children. Adrienne Rich ended Of Woman Born with the following: “We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence – a new relationship to the universe. Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed. This is where we have to begin.
Brenda Daniels is the interim dean at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Below you can find the footnotes from this article which a revised version of a paper written for the Hollins/ADF MFA program in 2006. The article is printed in the current issue of learning to loveDANCEmore which can be ordered from the journal tab above.
“These words were written in 1976, but their message and call to arms is just as necessary and urgent today.This note refers to the television show “I Love Lucy.” “On December 12, 1952, ‘Lucy is Enceint’(French for pregnant, which the CBS censor would not allow) aired.” Karin Adir, The Great Clowns of American Television (London: McFarland, 1988),14. See also TV ACRES Website: “Censorship and Scandals – Lucy’s Pregnancy,” http://tvacres.com/censorship_lucy.htm.
This note refers to the television show, “A Baby Story.” See Pie Town Television Productions, “A Baby Story – Show Info,” http://www.pietown.tv/shows/babystory.html.
George Balanchine, quoted in Allegra Kent, Once a Dancer, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997), 187.
Stanton Welch (director of Houston Ballet Company), quoted in Erika Kinetz, “Belly Dancing,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure section, April 10, 2005.
“Among mothers ages 15 to 44 who do not have infants, 74% are in the labor force.” U.S. Census Bureau, “Women by the Numbers,” http://www.factmonster.com/spot/womencensus1.html.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 44.
“While still in Russia, Nijinska had also separated from her husband and was raising two children and supporting an aged mother on her own while running her school.” Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (London: Routledge, 1998), 120.
“It seemed as if Isadora had at last found everything she needed in life: a great career on the stage, funds at last to establish and keep going the school of her dreams, two adorable and beautiful children, recognition in the country of her birth and in the great capitals of Europe and a lover who would give her anything she asked for.” Walter Terry, Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963), 48.
“Humphrey’s own life as a wife and working mother were unconventional for her time. Devoted to her art and her career, Humphrey refused serious relationships with men until at the age of 36 she married Charles Woodford, a seaman who was away on duty most of the time. Pregnant at 38, Humphrey worked the entire term, and she even induced labor early, so as not to miss a concert date. She was never inclined toward domesticity, and often her colleagues and even her colleagues’ relatives helped care for her child, sometimes taking him on trips while Humphrey worked.” Banes, Dancing Women, 145. See also Doris Humphrey, Doris Humphrey: An Artist First (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1972) , 122-153 and Marcia B. Seigel, Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 130-205.
“In a way, Jesse (her son) conducted rehearsals as we all took turns changing diapers and feeding the baby.” Twyla Tharp, Push Comes to Shove (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 158.
Molly Glenzer, “Baby Boom: Motherhood Gets an Ovation,” Dance Magazine, April 2004, 35.
“’The Look’ as dancers refer to this idealization of the thinnest of the thin, is, most critics and dancers concur, a concession to taste, taste that has largely been formed by one man. That man is George Balanchine – America’s chief arbiter of ballet style and aesthetics.” Suzanne Gordon, “Ballet in America: The Art and The Anguish,” GEO, January 1981, 46.
Ann Daly, “The Balanchine Woman: Of Hummingbirds and Channel Swimmers,” from chapter 3, “Theorizing Gender” in Critical Gestures: Writings in Dance and Culture (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 286.
Ashley, Dancing for Balanchine, 62.
Patricia Neary, quoted in Glenzer, “Baby Boom,” 35.
Ashley, Dancing for Balanchine, 121.
Hayden, in discussion with the author.
“And so the choice is to stand up for ourselves, our security, out financial security, or to give second place to such values and act on respect, devotion, love and deep belief in one man. Balanchine is more important and valuable than we are individually. If personal security is our primary aim, dancing is not the career for us.” Bentley, Winter Season, 88.
“City Ballet offers 21sick days, followed by a brief disability leave and up to three months of unpaid leave.” Kinetz, “Belly Dancing.”
Collective Bargaining Agreement between Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Guild of Musical Artists: June 1,2002 through May 31, 2005, http://www.musicalartists.org/HomePage.htm, 35.
O’Reilly, From Motherhood to Mothering, 11.
Dunning, Alvin Ailey, 244.
Judith Jamison, Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 244.
“Members of American Ballet Theater receive four weeks of sick leave, at full pay; when that’s used up, they are eligible for state disability pay for up to eight weeks and an additional $400 a week in disability from the company for up to a year.” Kinetz, “Belly Dancing.”
“Lucia Chase…is both the hub and foundation of American Ballet Theatre. For almost thirty years since its inception she not only took the most active part in its overall artistic direction, but was its major source of financial support, diminishing her own private fortune to keep the company alive.” Franklin Stevens, Dance as Life: A Season with American Ballet Theatre (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 87.
Payne, American Ballet Theatre, 23.
Frank Smith (former ABT soloist), in discussion with the author, October 2005.
Warren Conover (former ABT soloist), in discussion with the author, September, 2005.
Glentzer, “Baby Boom,” 38.
Kinetz, “Belly Dancing.”
Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, eds., Breeder: Real Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers (Seattle, WA: Seal Press), xiii.
Rich, Of Woman Born, 285-286.