Nikki O'Hara and Rosie Kay

Working in dance is challenging at the best of times but what about when female dancers and choreographers want to start families? Teacher, choreographer and aerial performer Nikki O'Hara and the AD of Rosie Kay Dance Company tell their story.

Published on August 14th, 2015 - Written by Neil Nisbet - ©2015 Article19 All Rights Reserved

Within the wide world of dance there is a persistent debate about the role of women in the profession and the astonishing lack of opportunities available to the gender that outnumbers men by a considerable margin. One reason, often cited by those “in the know”, is that women have children and little ones scampering about the dance studio floor are incompatible with a career in dance because….. reasons!

Nikki O’Hara is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. Trained at Bird College in Kent she has enjoyed a long career as a performer with Motionhouse Dance Theatre and many other independent companies over the years alongside creating and touring her own work. Most recently she was a solo aerial performer in the opening ceremony of the European Games in Azerbaijan. Her main job at the moment though involves being a senior lecturer in contemporary dance and choreography at both Bird College and Performers College, she is also a mother to 18 month old Jacob.

Rosie Kay is a graduate of London Contemporary Dance School and the Artistic Director of Rosie Kay Dance Company. As well as extensively touring and creating her own work with the company for the past 11 years Rosie also teaches rather a lot and is the “..Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnology, University of Oxford” which is just as posh it sounds! Rosie is also a mother to her 10 month old son Gabriel.

Making A Plan

In May this year Rosie Kay was on tour with her company and their work ‘5 Soldiers’. Having travelled from Birmingham to Newcastle upon Tyne with Gabriel in tow what follows is a fairly typical day of supervising and rehearsing a full length work, dealing with meetings, finding parking spaces, post show talks, company class, feedings, and then settling down in a hotel room very late at night only to start the whole process all over again the next day.

It is a schedule that Rosie describes as “unrelenting”. She goes on to describe the process of running a company with Gabriel coming along for the ride;

“It was busy and stressful anyway but it just adds another layer. However it does give me a huge amount of happiness and a lot of love and sometimes it gives me a bit of extra focus about why I’m doing this [because] my livelihood needs to fulfill me so that I’m a happy fulfilled person, I’m very lucky not to work just for the money but because I love it and I can see that Gabriel enjoys being in that environment”

For Nikki O’Hara the day to day schedule is very different, although no less formidable, involving, as it does, a constant stream of child minding, teaching, meetings and navigating busy traffic the next job and then home.

However, the sentiments put forward by Rosie about the career having a positive effect on Gabriel are also echoed by Nikki when it comes to Jacob;

“It’s good to be happy in your job. Somebody said to me ‘if you’re happy, he will be happy’ and that’s really good advice. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve had. It’s hard sometimes because it feels like, maybe, you’re being selfish, taking the time to do that performance job, to do that rehearsal [but thinking] I should be picking him up, I’m late or I’m just not with him on Saturday and I should be. But ultimately, if I’m feeding myself [creatively] then I’m feeding him!”

The Right Time

Debbi Purtill

Debbi is a dancer and choreographer and is currently the Associate Director of Ballet Lorent in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Having been a working mother in dance for 6 years now, her son is six year old Otto, she shares her experiences of navigating the profession with a young child and explains how the company she works with has learned to integrate young children not only into their on-stage work but their entire operation.

Perhaps the toughest decision to make is when to start a family especially given the very physical nature of the job. For Nikki it was always the plan for her and husband Tom to have children but the perfect time was never going to arrive and she realised this very early on, formulated a plan and stuck to it. She describes the career family mix over the last 18 months as “evolving”.

For Rosie things were a little bit different reflecting that starting a family 8 or so years previously would have been a good thing but as she says, laughing, “she hadn’t met her husband”. She goes on to explain that both she and her partner, film maker Louis Price, were waiting until their careers were perhaps a little more stable, a situation that Rosie admits is probably never going to happen when you work in the arts, especially in the dance world.

At times Rosie admits that things can get stressful and a little upsetting if she can’t devote as much time to Gabriel and she would like to but more often than not these situations work themselves out and everything that needs to be done, work wise, gets done.

Nikki admits that being pregnant was a lot more challenging for her, work wise, than she anticipated. Again, because of the very physical nature of the job she had to modify her teaching methods dramatically the more pregnant she became because regular physical demonstration was increasingly impractical. When Jacob arrived a different challenge emerged, the challenge of not really moving much at all, dance wise, for large portions of the day. AS far as work was concerned Nikki missed it far more than she thought she would and with that came feelings of guilt for wanting to return to work.

When that return to work finally came the work life balance issues came into sharp focus. Nikki cites Jacob as being a fantastic motivation to separate the work and home life, something that is often challenging or those in the dance world. There was also a desire to get back into good physical shape, something that also involved Jacob. Nikki, a keen runner, would often go running with her son in his buggy, pushing him alone in front of her, she also set up a once a week fitness group for mothers so they could get in a work out while having the children close by.

Nikki O'Hara teaches contemporary class at Bird College in Kent for third year students | photo by Article19

The Practicalities of The State

In the modern world families can be very expensive things and within a profession where income levels have never been stellar things can get interesting for families in dance and the arts very quickly.

Rosie admits to a particularly scary situation when she was 3-4 months pregnant when she realised there was no money coming in from work, combined with bad luck on several funding applications, making for a very difficult situation. She had planned to take 3 months off prior to giving birth and 6 months off after giving birth but that plan transformed into 2 weeks off before and 6 weeks off after.

The money situation was eased a little by statutory maternity pay (Rosie is an employee of her own company) but the level of income was very low and as she pointed out; "I’m not on maternity leave if there is no company to go back to!”

Again, for Nikki things were a little bit different because she is “part self-employed and part employed” and that gave her access to some maternity pay which she describes as being “semi-adequate”. Upon her return to work Nikki’s employers, Bird College and Performers College, have been very flexible concerning working hours and she cites this as being a hugely important factor, stating simply that if employers cannot be flexible or support of the fact she is a working mother then finding employers who were would be a priority.

Rosie is more direct with regards to the entire system of support for women who have families, particular in the arts;

“Considering how important children are to our society, women are treated really badly and children are treated incredibly badly, it’s no myth that our children are the unhappiest in Europe. They’re just not given sympathetic treatment, the arts aren’t bad but they’re not great considering we are in such a lovely profession, people haven’t been particular sympathetic”

She also says that the family situation is difficult for both men and women and involves lots of extra hours unpaid work and the profession is in danger of becoming for younger dancers and choreographers or those without children because it simply cannot support parents. Rosie points out that at the moment Gabriel is only 10 months old but things will start to get a lot more complex when he needs to be picked up from school every day in a few years, a situation not compatible with the nomadic life style of a working dance maker. She readily admits that a some point there may be no other option than to walk away a get a "normal" job.

Ultimately, for these two mothers working in dance, the children are not an issue that needs to be “dealt with”. The kids actually play a huge part in their mothers respective careers, feeding them both emotionally, creatively and practically. Bigger issues arise when it comes to organisations and the inconsistent support they may or may not provide for those with families that choose to work in the arts. So many things need to be organised in an ad-hoc way (especially for freelancers) and, as Rosie pointed out, it doesn’t need to be that way.

[ Nikki O'Hara Professional Class (Facebook)]
[ Rosie Kay Dance Company ]