Keeping Mothers at the Creative Table

Marlie Couto and Courtney Mazurka in Amy Foley’s work. Photo by Stephen Texeira

In a recent article about pregnant dancers’ experiences, Sima Belmar shared the voice of soon-to-be-mother artists. They expressed both their excitement and their concerns as they witnessed the changes that their bodies underwent and how that affected -and often jeopardized- their professional life. More often than not, dancers had to hide a large portion of their pregnancy to feel choreographers were still taking them seriously. Belmar interviewed dancers on both coasts and noted that the Bay Area is “full of choreographers who embrace rather than tolerate the pregnant dancing body!”

SEAM, an initiative launched by Bay Area dance makers and mothers, attest to the spirit of shared resources and support that can be nurtured in the Bay Area. Formed last spring by choreographers, dancers and mothers Tanya Bello, Kristen Daley, Amy Foley and Yayoi Kambara, SEAM is a platform that aims at helping artists continue to present their creative work when they become mothers. For this first iteration, the four artists will share their work at Dance Mission from September 29 to October 1. A panel discussion moderated by Hope Mohr, featuring seasoned choreographers who are also mothers Julia Adam, Joanna Haigood and Laura Elaine Ellis, will offer the opportunity to discuss motherhood and art making. As Foley explains, “right now SEAM exists as the inaugural show of what we hope will be an annual dance concert. SEAM is both an acronym for Support and Elevate Artist Mothers and a play on the word ‘seam’ — the sense of drawing together different parts to make something new or larger. With programming and by raising awareness, we hope to create a space in which dancers and choreographers who are also mothers can feel supported — heard, seen and (gasp!) even celebrated.”

Daley, Foley and Kambara each have 2 daughters, Bello has a son. Bello and Foley came up with the idea of SEAM after regularly discussing the challenges that motherhood inferred on art making, and soon invited Kambara and Daley to join the project. “I think there is something about dance, about choreography in particular, that is especially challenging in terms of parenthood and it has to do with the economics of dance and the fact that the art-making is entirely self-created, self-motivated and self-perpetuated,” Foley commented.

The four artists touched upon how many of the challenges that dancers and choreographers encounter only amplify when they become mothers. “As a mother, you have even less time to write grants, cultivate relationships with your donors, organize fundraising events, or manage the company and its finances,” Bello shared. For Daley, finding the balance between art making and motherhood was tricky. “How do I find the courage to be an artist while also not feeling like I am sacrificing my family by choices I am making professionally?”

Bello and Foley also addressed how not only the drastic body changes that happen during and after pregnancy but also the new status of motherhood could shut the door to professional opportunities. “I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic and accommodating choreographers! But do I feel that I have been overlooked or written-off as a dancer, teaching-artist, or choreographer because I have young children? Most definitely,” Foley added. Kambara, who danced with ODC/Dance while pregnant and raising her two children, had a different experience: “I performed until my 37th week of pregnancy, and I gave birth at 39 weeks. I feel fortunate to have been with ODC/Dance, which supported my decision to be a dancing mother. My body changed but mainly in a positive way — I still remain more flexible than before. I think I was able to relax more about dancing, as motherhood gave me perspective. There were a lot of other more important thing to worry about besides what roles did I get, was I in top shape, among others.”

One of new parents’ priorities is to juggle the complicated and stressful dance –no pun intended- of childcare, especially during the first five years of children’s lives, before public education starts (In California, some transitional kindergarten programs allow children who are 4, but only a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds qualified, as they have to be born between September and December). Some families may have a grandparent around who is willing and available to take care of one’s child (Recent studies show that a lot of families, especially those earning less than $30,000 a year do not have another choice but to rely on family members for childcare). But because jobs are most often located in big cities, dancers are forced to move away from their hometown. If you take a look at dancers’ biographies around the Bay, a large majority of female dancers hail from other states, making it challenging to continue their artistic career, unless they can afford childcare. As Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller noted in their article The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles From Mom, “dual-earner families of all income levels need backup sometimes, and without family support, one parent, usually the mother, can feel forced to stop working.”

Not every dance maker can afford the high costs of childcare. In her article How Motherhood Affects Creativity about the stigmas that prevail regarding the incompatibility of making art and having children, Erika Hayasaki touches upon the role privilege plays in the ability that some artists have to continue to make work: “Some of us can afford to pay for childcare during studio or shed time. Some of us moms can carve out time for creative endeavors (even if it feels like there is never enough).” According to the Children’s Council of San Francisco, the average monthly cost of full-time care in San Francisco varies from $1,400 to $1,900 for infants, and from $1,200 to $1,500 for a 4-year old, depending whether the child is in a child care center or a family child care home. The average hourly cost of a babysitter in San Francisco ranges from $20 to $25. The average monthly gross salary of a full-time nanny in San Francisco is $3,291 for one child, $3,637 for two children.

Of course, these numbers vary across the Bay but when keeping in mind the salaries, stipends or performance fees that dancers make –which also vary a lot- it is sadly understandable why some dancers have to make the choice to leave the field — either to stay home or to take a full-time job in a more lucrative industry. As an example, a dance teacher in the Bay makes in average of $25 to $60 per class. An adjunct professor makes in average $35 to $60 dollars per hour. How many classes would one need to teach to cover the cost of childcare? As for freelance dancers, their wages range from $13 to $25, depending on experience. A large portion of dance jobs fall under the category of independent contractors, and therefore offer no benefits. The majority of dancers paste together a series of contracts to make ends meet. The opportunity to get into a dance company that offers a full-time contract with benefits is extremely rare. And when it comes to producing one’s own work, after paying dancers’ fees, theater rental costs, the costume designers, commissioned musicians, lighting designers and stage managers, studio rental for rehearsals, videographers and photographers, there is rarely any money left for choreographers to pay themselves.

Kambara rightfully notes that “there are a lot of variations when it comes to dancers’ income and childcare costs. The financial question is also different with ballet dancers versus contemporary dancers with contracts, and then independent contractors.” So while numbers are essential to take into account, for Kambara the question is really about “how to promote a culture where we are encouraging one another to continue in our art form while delicately balancing the finances, time management, and creative life in dance.” In this inaugural year, the support that SEAM offers to new mothers takes the form of shared resources, split workload and costs, and creative and moral support. “We ask: what hurdles can we remove so that you might continue to create and show your work? Maybe by drawing attention to the fact that it is complicated and often challenging to carve out a sustainable creative life as a mother; maybe by sharing a concert with some other respected artists who are trying to do it too; maybe by hearing from some other mothers in the field who have persevered and thrived, we are doing a tiny part toward keeping women here, in the creative realm,” Foley explained.

For Daley, being a part of SEAM has provided “an emotional support, a shared kindred spirit. I feel lifted up by Tanya, Amy and Yayoi. I know that they also know what it is like to struggle with questions around dancing/dance making and motherhood.” For Foley, SEAM is also a way to address gender inequities in the dance field: “Overall, I see SEAM as a way to support all women, whether they have a child, may have a child later or decide not to have children at all. If we want women to be a part of the larger creative conversation around choreography and if we want women to be in positions of creative power and leadership in our field, we need to have these conversations. We must find ways to support the people who make up the bulk of the dance world but are vastly disproportionately represented in the leadership of the field.”

The SEAM artists hope to present a concert annually and invite other mothers-artists to participate in the future. In regards to SEAM currently being gender specific, Daley explained that “there was no specific intention to exclude anyone, particularly for their gender, but at this moment, for this year, it was about starting a conversation amongst the four of us about what a platform might look like if we honestly addressed some of the challenges and joys that artist mothers are facing.” Bello continued: “I think that there are definitely issues pertaining mostly to female artists. Body issues are just one of many. However, it doesn’t mean we are closed off to the idea of supporting Fathers in the future.” One of the dancers in her company is a new dad and Bello remarks how his input has been vital in the creation of her new piece: “It gives me a chance to look at his perspective and his own journey as a father, an artist, and partner to another artist. They have their struggles as well and believe that if we can create a platform for future parents to continue their artistic life then we should. It is a big loss for the artistic community when artists have to choose between an artistic life and leaving it because they don’t have that support.”

Yet, for Foley, it is important to emphasize the support to mothers: “I personally am interested in keeping women at the creative table. All too often, the moms simply disappear from the creative realm, for all the reasons we know of and more. This ‘disappearance of mothers’ happens in all fields, of course, but ours is unique in that the field of dance is so heavily dominated by women at the dancer level. As such, women are often viewed as expendable and men are arguably more valued. Based on the number of women in the field, the dance world should not only be run almost entirely by women, but should be setting the standard for how best to navigate work and motherhood! As we know, this is not the case. Not even close. We want to do a tiny part in both addressing that fact by creating this platform to raise awareness and to offer a place to share resources.”