There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes something like this: “we plan, God laughs.” Now, regardless of your spiritual proclivities or the degree of belief you may or may not have in the Almighty, I think everyone can understand the sentiment. Sometimes the choreography we create for our life is not how the performance unfolds onstage.
I’ve wanted to be a professional dancer since I was eight or so. My mother showed me a VHS recording of Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov performing The Nutcracker, and that was it, I was hooked. For the most part, I was pretty lucky and I was able to follow my “plan.” I got into the college dance program of my choice, avoided major injuries, managed to get hired by several different companies, and even worked as a freelancer for a bit. Did I book every job I wanted or achieve everything I thought I would as a dance artist? No, but I was proud of myself and where I was going in that facet of life. As far as other aspects of my life like becoming a mother, developing hobbies, or buying a house, they were things that I figured I’d get around to eventually, but I really didn’t spend too much energy on them. It was always dance. It was who I was. It was integral to my sense of self, and by extension, my sense of self-worth.
It is clinging to identities and their rigid definitions that caused me so much strife over the years.
Then 2020 happened. Now, I am not alone in my feelings of loss and fear that accompany this year. I went from dancing and rehearsing practically every day to trying to take company classes and learn repertoire over Zoom in my tiny LA kitchen. This is not a unique experience for my fellow dance artists–we all felt this punch to the gut. The loss of income, the loss of performances, the loss of contracts, tours, and on and on and on. Just…the loss. I–and plenty of my co-workers and friends–just felt like I was in a holding pattern, waiting for life to begin again.
But it never did. At least, not for me, not the way I imagined, and not the way it had been. In July 2020, I knew I was pregnant before I even took the test; I knew when I got in my car to drive to Target and buy it. I knew deep in my gut, deep in my bones, and my whole world changed. In my mind, becoming a first-time mom at this point wasn’t part of the plan, but hey, neither was a pandemic, so I decided I’d just roll with the punches. The first trimester hit hard. I was still rehearsing with a company over Zoom three days per week, and I was having a terrible time keeping up. It was summer in Los Angeles, I had no air conditioning, and I was trying to do Horton technique in my kitchen and not throw up. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I had it in me anymore. I was exhausted, fatigued, and so very tired of dancing on my kitchen floor. I took a hiatus from the company with plans to return a few months after the birth of my baby in March.
Yet, once again, I never did. In December 2020, I had that deep, gut, bone-chilling feeling of knowing something before I really knew it, the same way I had in July. Yet this time, it was because something was wrong. I tried to talk myself out of it, chalked it up to the nerves of being a first-time mom and all that, but I knew. On December 16, 2020, I delivered my first-born daughter, silent and still as midnight; she was gone before I ever had the chance to truly meet her. I named her Sparrow, chose an urn that fit into the palm of my hand, and moved forward to the most unfathomable chapter of my life.
Who was I anyway? I resigned from the company I was dancing with two weeks after my daughter’s death, so, not a dancer. My stupid body couldn’t keep my baby alive, so not a mother. I sank below waves of grief for months. Everything felt garbled and blurred like people were talking to me, but I had water in my ears, so I couldn’t really hear them. I tried to dance, to reclaim some little bit of who I was, alone in my house, but my body just felt too sad to move, and the desire was gone.
As the sharpest points of grief dulled into a daily ache, I came to realize that I had no identity that was just me. How do you go about finding your identity when everything you define yourself as is gone? Was I still a dancer if my feet hadn’t touched a stage in a year? Was I still a mother if my baby was dead? And an even larger question, did I even want to define myself by those parameters anyway? I hadn’t stopped to consider what I actually enjoyed and wanted out of life in totality, it had all been in service to the more short-term goals of the next contract, the next performance, or the next job. I stopped dancing completely for a while, and realized that I needed to make some life-changing choices.
The first of these choices was to walk away from a professional performing career. The pandemic was still inhibiting employment at the time, and I personally didn’t feel like it was serving me mentally, emotionally, artistically, or financially anymore. I continued to teach ballet and modern, and though I was thankful to still have a connection to the art form, I didn’t feel like I needed any more than that. The second choice was to consider myself and to remove the carefully crafted identity of “dancer” I had been hiding behind for so many years. I needed to just be me, and acknowledge who that person was. After all, even though a lot of Americans define themselves by their jobs and careers, I think dancers suffer from a much higher degree of enmeshment. I doubt I am the only dance artist who feels this way.
I am a mother, a dancer, and an artist, all at the same time, but it is not who I am.
Slowly, I came back to dance, but not as a career. I could improv again, and pliés started to feel like the blessed daily ritual I had always loved. I came back, but I was different. Nothing mattered to me the way it had before, and I don’t mean that in a nihilistic, dark way, it just didn’t. Casting, auditions, none of it mattered to me, and that person who had been so tightly wound up about it seemed like a distant stranger to me. In a way, it was a relief. Now, everything could be about what I wanted and what I needed on a given day, not what someone else needed or wanted out of me.
In August 2021, I was pregnant again. It was a minefield. Well-meaning strangers often asked if it was my first and every day felt like a choose-your-own-adventure story where my options were to either a: ruin someone’s day and talk about my dead baby or b: ruin my own day by lying about her existence. I struggled emotionally and mentally. There were days I was positive that history was repeating itself and that this baby was dead, too. Thankfully, and I say this with all my heart and soul, my second daughter was born full-term, alive, and healthy.
Once again, my identity shifted, but it wasn’t as painful this time. Although I already considered myself a mother (once I emerged on the other side of my sheer self-loathing phase of grief), mothering a dead baby is very different from an alive one. The largest shift, especially as an artist who requires space and silence to work, is how much your body and your brain are no longer your own. I was prepared for the difficulty of a physical recovery coupled with caring for an infant, but I was not ready for the sheer mental space that it would take. Following one task through to completion without needing to feed, change a diaper, or otherwise parent my baby proved impossible most days. And yet, in a shocking plot twist, I didn’t mind. In a world that prioritized action, speed, and constant achievement, my daughter’s needs forced me to stop, slow down, and just be present.
Now, she is eight months old and growing more independent by the day. She has put the living color back into my world in more ways than one, but the most rewarding thing is to watch her experience the world for the first time. The sensation is familiar to me. At one time, looking at the world through the lens of dance produced the same effect–the mundane was magical. Like art, looking at life through a baby’s eyes makes the commonplace exceptional. Rain is spectacular, public bathrooms are hilarious, and every piece of furniture is a mountain to climb. It is here that my personalities as a mother and an artist can comfortably collaborate and augment one another.
But to be perfectly honest, it is clinging to identities and their rigid definitions that caused me so much strife over the years, even before the pandemic and my first child’s untimely death. I am a mother, a dancer, and an artist, all at the same time, but it is not who I am. Even though both dance and motherhood can be such all-consuming endeavors, I strongly encourage everyone to know that they are more outside of those activities and external definitions. Who you are is something to cling to, not a list of boxes to check or achievements to gather. Life will come with its trials and its vicissitudes, but if you have a sense of self that external cataclysm cannot wash away, you will weather the storm with steadfast faith in who you are. As Tolkien said, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”