How were the arts a part of your childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina? I’ve always loved music. As a child, any time I heard music I would just dance around. My mom would say I had way too much energy, and she worked next door to a dance studio called “Pat Hall’s Dance Limited.” It was very convenient for her to drop me off there around the time she was getting off work. I took all types of classes: tap, ballet, jazz, gymnastics, and I fell in love with dance.
Then one day when I was around nine years old, she took me to audition for the Nutcracker at North Carolina Dance Theatre, which is now Charlotte Ballet, and I remember kicking and screaming because I didn’t want to go; I was too busy playing outside. But I’m glad I went because I made an impression on the director, and I ended up getting a scholarship to the school. That’s where I fell in love with Classical ballet.
Ballet training is something you need, even to be in a dance company like Alvin Ailey. I guess a lot of people don’t realize it, but the first thing you do at an Alvin Ailey audition is start at the barre with a ballet class. It’s how we warm up every single day before a performance. I’m very grateful for that day.
When did you first learn about the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater? I remember at a very young age watching a PBS special on “Revelations,” and I thought it was incredible because it wasn’t something that I was used to seeing in concert dance. Growing up, we went to a Southern Baptist church, so seeing things like, for example, the women with their fans at the church gossiping was very relatable for me. That’s what Revelations is about: coming through strife and celebrating going through those trials and tribulations.
I didn’t really learn much more about Ailey until I went to SUNY Purchase in 2002. There, a professor asked me what I was going to do for the summer. My plan had been to go to Dance Theatre of Harlem because a lot of my friends were going there, and because I thought I was a ballerina. She said to me, “No, you’re going to come with me to Alvin Ailey.” And so I went.
I kind of lost touch with the Ailey company since I had seen that PBS special as a kid, but a close colleague and friend of mine was a huge fan of Ailey. She had a lot of pictures and videos, and I was amazed seeing them. Then I got to the school and there was this sense of good competition; so many kids dancing their hearts out. I felt like that was where I belonged. One of the assistant directors of Ailey II at that time told me that they thought I’d be a great fit, and asked me to come back the following year. My parents were supportive, and told me if that was what I really wanted, I should follow through with what my heart was telling me. And it worked out.
I remember also seeing a video of “Revelations” for the first time in undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and being blown away by the imagery. That dance paints such a vivid and striking picture of a very specific place and time, with such emotion and color. I can’t imagine what it would be like to realize the dream of participating in that production. It must feel really amazing. Yeah, it definitely is. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back so badly. It was almost like my soul was needing to release something through Ailey’s repertoire. “Cry,” “Revelations,” and “Blues Suite” are all pieces that—even though they were created in the 50s and 60s—are still very relevant and relatable to this day.
“It was almost like my soul was needing to release something through Ailey’s repertoire.”
When did you decide you wanted to start a family? Maybe about a year after my husband and I got married, we started talking about kids. We were trying, and it took a couple of months before we got the “plus” sign. I had been dancing for four or five years with the company, and in my fifth year while I was on tour in Germany, I found out I was pregnant with Savannah. My directors asked me to go to the doctor to make sure it was okay for me to continue performing. I went, and I was told it was okay to continue my normal routine, so I did. Then very soon after having my first daughter Savannah, I found out I was pregnant with my son, Thanos.
We weren’t really planning to have our second child so soon, but in a way, I think it was meant to happen the way it did. I was able to bounce back into shape quickly, having them 19 months apart. They are so close and they play so well with each other. Don’t get me wrong, they have their fits. But I like that they have someone to play with and to talk to, especially since I travel so much. They keep each other company. Savannah is the big sister, but she also plays the “mommy” role. She’s the lady of the house when I’m gone.
Did you make a conscious decision to take a break from the company when you had kids? I did. The dance company travels pretty much nine months out of the year. Early in our marriage I was traveling so much, and I wanted to be able to settle down, spend time with my husband, and have a normal life. I started looking into the commercial side of dancing: getting an agent, modeling, maybe dancing for shows or singers. I ended up doing a few modeling gigs with some major retailers, and I filmed a movie called “Bolden” where I was a dancer. That was fun, and a nice paycheck, but it would be only a minute or two of dancing between takes. For me, it wasn’t as fulfilling as being on stage, and it just wasn’t meant to be.
At the same time I was doing gigs for a dance company back at home in North Carolina. It felt great being on stage and performing for more than five minutes at a time. But afterwards I would feel almost a depression. I wanted more—I just missed dancing so much. That’s when I decided to get back into concert dancing. And now I’m super happy being back. It’s been fulfilling, coming back to Ailey to share my art and my love of dance with the people.
You have to be away from your kids a lot. How did you make the decision to do that, and why is it important to you? The decision to return to dance affected not only just me and my happiness, but it affected my family as well. When I got back to dancing my husband said to me, “I see you again. You’re you. You’re back to being happy. You’re passionate about what you love to do.” And my kids were so excited to see me dance on stage for the first time. They talked nonstop about what they saw. My daughter is now obsessed with Ailey, and she can sing every song in Revelations. In “Wade in the Water,” there’s this lady who holds an umbrella, and it’s a part I sometimes perform. My daughter can recite the scene for you, step-by-step. And my son can, too. He sings “Wade in the Water” all the time. When I see that, it makes me want to dance even more.
“I always said my kids make me a better dancer, and now dancing again and doing what I love makes me a better mother.”
I always said my kids make me a better dancer, and now dancing again and doing what I love makes me a better mother. I think they see that passion. I feel like I’m inspiring them, and that makes me feel really good. I want them to look up to me.
It is tough, though, being away from my family for so long. I’m constantly FaceTiming throughout the day, especially when we’re touring outside of the country. Usually when we’re on tour in the U.S., it’s a lot easier for them to come to visit or for me to take a quick trip home. But I have to take it day by day, and every day is not pretty. Sometimes I can be crying, or someone’s sick, or I feel like I miss out on certain things. It’s not a fun feeling, but we do the best that we can. So far it’s working!
Part of the reason I started Mother Maker is because in the classical music world it can be pretty difficult to find women, at least of the older generation, who have careers in the arts while being parents and raising a family. It’s just hard to find. Do you find that that’s true in the dance community? Is it rare for women to have a family and be performers? Oh my gosh, it’s so rare. And it’s such a fight to have any needs met while having a family. We were in the U.K. last year, and worked with the Royal Ballet, where it seemed like practically every single woman in the company was a mother.
You were injured when you were pregnant with your son. What did it feel like as a dancer to be injured, pregnant, and not sure of what the future looked like? When I was about 20 weeks pregnant with my second child, Thanos, I learned that my uterus was thinning out very rapidly, so I had to have a procedure called a cerclage, where they sew the cervix together. And once a week I would get a progesterone shot.
My doctor would say things like, “Oh, you need to get this done or you could lose your child, or he could be born prematurely, and you could be in the hospital for months.” I was by myself, because my husband was watching our daughter. And I was thinking, “What do you mean? I’m healthy! Nothing could be going wrong!”
That was a little scary. I remember researching the cerclage, and people were telling me that it wasn’t that painful. I feel like I have a high tolerance for pain, and I thought it was extremely painful and uncomfortable. I didn’t want anything else happening to my body.
I ended up going full term with him, but I was on bedrest for much of the pregnancy, and that was hard. I ended up body shaming myself a lot, because being stuck in bed, I couldn’t work out. I felt very loose compared to that tight dancer body that I had before.
How did you go about getting back into shape to join the company again after you had Thanos? I started doing gigs here and there with a dance company in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. I started slowly getting back into shape. My husband is a personal trainer and he gained a lot of the pregnancy weight as well, so we were both determined to get back in shape. We were working out maybe six times a week with Sundays as our days off. It was hard, because even with childcare, sometimes our kids wouldn’t allow themselves to be watched, and a two hour workout would be cut down to a 30 minute workout, maybe even a 15 minute workout. But soon enough I started feeling like myself, and gaining confidence again.
I started talking it over with my family about wanting to go back to Ailey, and we moved back to New York. I had missed the diversity and culture of New York. One day, I went over to the school and asked my director if I could take class. He asked me if I was back in town and I told him we had moved back. Then other dancers started asking me if I was coming back, and I would say, “I don’t know. He hasn’t asked me…” And sure enough I got a phone call asking if I’d like to come back. He didn’t know I was already a step ahead of him. I told him that my family had already talked about returning, and yes, I wanted to come back.
I had three months to really prepare myself. I had been working out, but I hadn’t been doing anything of the caliber of Alvin Ailey. So I would go every morning to take ballet, and to take Horton technique. I had teachers guiding me and helping along, getting me where I needed to be.
Then, literally a month before my contract started with Ailey, my IUD ruptured my uterus, and went into my abdomen. They were talking about surgery; they didn’t know exactly where it was. I didn’t know if I would have to have open surgery, and wondered if I’d be able to recover in time. That was a whole nightmare within itself.
“Then, literally a month before my contract started with Ailey, my IUD ruptured my uterus, and went into my abdomen. They were talking about surgery; they didn’t know exactly where it was…I wondered if I’d be able to recover in time.”
Wow. After all of that work to get back in shape, and to be invited back to the company, to have that setback must have been devastating. I woke up that morning in an extreme amount of pain. It felt worse than labor. I thought maybe my appendix had burst. I went to the ER and they told me it was probably a kidney stone, and they gave me pain meds and they sent me home. When I got home I got a phone call saying that I needed to come back because they saw my scan and it wasn’t a kidney stone, it was actually my IUD that had gone up into my uterus. It was really hard. I had just gotten back into shape. I was feeling strong and secure about my dancing, and then for this to happen…
With the first surgery to get it removed, the doctor cut high into my abdomen, which tends to make your core weaker. It took me a long time to physically walk and regain my strength. After speaking with him, something in my heart told me to go somewhere else, maybe seek a second opinion. He was talking about how the IUD might be stuck in my fallopian tube, and he was asking if I was planning on having any more kids. I just felt uneasy about him.
So I ended up going to a different doctor, an OB/GYN who I love, and still see today. I immediately noticed that he ran tests that the other hospital did not. He was able to laparoscopically remove the IUD in the lower part of my abdomen, and I was walking within a day. I still felt pretty strong, so right when they gave me the OK, I was back to working out and going back into dance class, because I only had maybe two weeks before my contract started.
It was very scary because I didn’t think I was going to be strong enough and ready enough to dance again. It wasn’t like I was going back to work and rehearsing for months. I was rehearsing for maybe a week or two and performing on stage. I was learning a new piece; I got a nice duet that was showcasing me. I knew I had to be on my game, because you never really know what your directors remember of you. For instance, I don’t know what they remember of me when I was in my 20s. Now I’m here in my 30s after having two kids, and I want to prove to them that I was worth hiring back. I definitely felt the pressure of trying to be back in shape and being strong as ever, graceful as ever.
“When I went back to dance at Ailey there was even more of a hunger because I had waited a few years to come back to dancing after having my kids..People were telling me there was something about the way that I move now that is completely different from the way they were used to seeing me.”
When I went back to dance at Ailey there was even more of a hunger because I had waited a few years to come back to dancing after having my kids, and then there was this roadblock, and it made me crave dance that much more. I think it really showed, especially my first season back. People were telling me there was something about the way that I move now that is completely different from the way they were used to seeing me.
For most women, having children can become a thing that we blame certain changes that happen in our bodies. Not necessarily even weight gain, but strength, flexibility and posture. As a dancer, and someone who is extremely in tune with your body, have you noticed changes in your body from having two children? I definitely feel that it has changed my body. Pregnancy takes you forward, especially in your spine. I’ve already had issues with what we call “sitting in your back” because I was a gymnast, and I’m very hyper mobile. I also have lower scoliosis, which doesn’t help. Carrying two children really brought me forward, and wearing baby carriers didn’t help either—especially with my second.
Luckily, we travel with a physical therapist, so I’ve been working a lot with her. And I do Gyrokinesis and Gyrotonics, which are kind of like Pilates but with more circular movements, rather than pulsing and holding. That has helped me lengthen my spine. Weight training with my husband has also been a huge help. Most dancers are scared of weights because they are afraid of bulking up, but that was the quickest way to get back into shape. And I continue to do it now.
“I think dancers can have a misconstrued vision of ourselves. I’ve really had to train myself to let that go, and just know that I am active and I try to live a healthy, balanced life, and that’s all that matters.”
I do feel like, since having kids, my body carries weight differently. My metabolism is slowing down, and gaining five pounds and losing five pounds happens more frequently than it did when I was in my 20s. Some days I look at myself and I’m like, “Oh I feel slim!” And some days I’m like, “Whoa, where did this gut come from?!” But even before having kids, I think dancers can have a misconstrued vision of ourselves. I’ve really had to train myself to let that go, and just know that I am active and I try to live a healthy, balanced life, and that’s all that matters. I don’t really need to worry about my shape. And this mommy pooch may not ever go away, but I feel and look great.
Do you have any advice for other Mother Makers? Have patience. There’s no one way to go about it, and whichever path you take, you just have to take day by day. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s something that I’ve learned the most. Typically I like to do things for myself and be in control of everything, and sometimes you have to allow yourself to rely on others. You can’t do it all yourself. My husband has been a super hero for taking care of the kids primarily, while still being able to do his thing with fitness. I know it can’t be easy, but it’s definitely nice to have support from family and friends.