With Mother’s Day around the corner, Ali Duffy, an associate professor of dance, shares her research on what it means to be a mother and artist, and how to create more equitable spaces for parents in the professional arts.
Ali Duffy wears many hats.
She is a wife, mother, dancer, advocate, teacher and researcher. Duffy doesn't believe life is about balancing those roles, but rather integrating them into one meaningful experience.
Since 2009, when she joined the dance faculty in Texas Tech University's School of Theatre & Dance, housed within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, Duffy's own life experiences have led her to research the experience of other dancers who go on to become parents.
“I'm currently writing a book titled ‘Dancing Motherhood' which is part of a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) in the arts series being published by Routledge,” Duffy said. “I've interviewed more than 300 (self-identified) women for the research, some who are mothers and others who have not been able to become mothers due to the demands of their careers in the dance industry.”
Duffy explains the performing arts can make it very challenging to become a parent, especially for women, but for men as well.
“I think dance is at the forefront of this challenge because the art form revolves around certain expectations of the body and women's bodies change so much when they become parents,” Duffy said. “Even if mothers do not become pregnant, but rather opt to foster or adopt, the purpose of your presence shifts and our presence is at the center of our art, whether that's dance, music or theater.”
Since becoming a mother almost six years ago, Duffy's advocacy for parents in the arts has only grown stronger. In honor of Mother's Day, she shared some of her observations about women's experience in the professional arts.
How did your dance career begin?
I started dancing late compared to most girls. I started seriously training at 14 years old and quickly decided I wanted to make it a career. Because of that, my high school years were somewhat of a crash course in everything dance. Then, I decided to major in dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. After graduating, I danced for commercial organizations, performed on cruise ships, in musical theatre companies and for choreographers in New York and Los Angeles. After a few years of that, I decided to go back to school and get a master's degree in choreography. After that, I moved to Lubbock to take this position at Texas Tech and have been here the past 13 years.
At a certain point, I realized I also wanted to get my doctorate. I was well into my dissertation when my husband and I found out we were pregnant, so that was the push I needed to finish writing. Since then, my work has really been a balance of both scholarly work and artistry.
Were you passionate about this topic before becoming a parent?
I noticed these issues before becoming a mother, and frankly, it's one of the reasons I waited so long to become pregnant. And it's not just me. When I visit with other women dancers, most of them share that they too waited longer than is typical to have children. Some women end up waiting so long they can only have one successful pregnancy, or none at all. They say they wanted to get the most out of their career, but then it ended in them finding out a viable pregnancy was just not possible.
It's interesting, though; motherhood became possible for some dancers during the pandemic. That was one unexpected bright side of this otherwise impossible time. Some women say they were able to become mothers because of teaching from home and not having the demands of evening and weekend rehearsals or performances.
After becoming a mother, myself, I also noticed how important things like parental leave and federal policies are for upholding the equity and access we claim to stand for in our country and in the arts. Our country makes it difficult to both work and parent well.
There is no federal- or state-mandated policy that ensures leave for parents. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles caregivers to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but early parenthood is usually a time when expenses are highest with medical bills and costs of a new baby. Now, some organizations offer paid leave during that time, but that's the exception to the rule.
Many dance organizations also are incredibly under-resourced, so they don't have the infrastructure to support parental leave, let alone address childcare, breastfeeding and other needs. So, some organizations may perceive that it's hard to hire a parent when the alternative is a younger dancer that doesn't come with that perceived “baggage.”
Why is dance such a hostile industry to mothers?
Gender is at the center of it. Generally, girls start dancing earlier than boys, and there are more of them. Because of this, girls are taught to be quiet and subservient, common tactics employed in early dance training. This isn't always the case, but it's enough of a trend to bring it up and there is a pattern backed by data. Because boys tend to be older when they start dancing, they enter dance training spaces having developed personalities and confidence, and are encouraged to speak their minds. Girls are one in a million in dance, but boys are rarer, so they're seen as special and are often advantaged.
Because of these privileges, men are advanced and promoted to leadership more often than women; they're given more awards and grants and more opportunities to produce their work. Men are often in charge of a lot of women, because men are promoted quickly and women comprise 75% of the dance industry.
So, we're literally more expendable. This cut-throat culture has been in place for a long time. It is starting to change, but it's going to be a slow change, which is frustrating.
Then there is this obstacle of the ideal dancer's body. This “ideal” body is a total myth because every body is a dancing body. But a specific kind of figure has been celebrated in the industry for so long, it's hard to make that shift. So, when women get pregnant, that ideal body is immediately challenged. It is up to leaders in the industry to resist the misnomer of this idea and invite greater diversity.
What are the strengths that mothers bring to the industry that should be celebrated more?
I can't think of a greater creative experience than creating human life in your body. I've not experienced a more creative endeavor. Because the body is the center of dance, there is something uniquely compelling about living through that experience and using it in your art.
I also am an advocate for people having whole lives. There should be more to your life than just dance, and motherhood is one direct route to meeting that goal. Motherhood also brings new skills that translate to your art. One such skill is time management. If you're a mother with a job, you are likely a great time manager. Another is advocacy. If you're a mother, you've learned to be a great advocate in your parental role. This translates to the arts because it's so important to what we do. Parenthood teaches you a lot about equity, fairness and kindness, all qualities that cross into every profession and area of life.
What are things you've learned about yourself by becoming a parent?
I've learned a lot about patience, priorities and work-life integration. I don't believe in the concept of work-life balance because that disenfranchises women, I think the idea of an integration is more realistic. That doesn't mean it always happens, but I think it's a healthier goal.
I've also learned how much I can accomplish in a short period of time. When you become a parent, you have these short windows of time to get things done. Turns out you can accomplish a lot in an hour!
Tell us about this phenomenon of dancers waiting later in life to have children. What was it like for you personally?
I was 37 when my son was born, and I'm glad I waited that long. I mean, I didn't get married until I was 35 and that was always my trajectory. I was waiting for the right partner. We were grateful to be able to have a child, because a lot of women who wait so long end up suffering multiple miscarriages or finding they have fertility issues that should have started being addressed years prior.
I wanted to squeeze as much out of my career as possible before having a child. However, I've realized that was a false narrative running through my mind. My career is actually more active now than before I had my son.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “You can't have it all, all at once.” I've found that to be so true. I had a time when I got to focus and build up my career, and then had to shift during the first year of being a parent. That was a hard time for me. When you're enthusiastic about your career, there is more to mourn as you set the other parts of you aside for a time. But you're also gaining these new, wonderful parts of your identity and experience. I think the point is to just focus on wherever you find yourself in the present moment. You will have it all, but it comes in seasons.
You've stayed in the dance industry. Is that typical, or do most women have total career shifts after becoming mothers?
I've interviewed more than 300 women for ‘Dancing Motherhood.' Several of them discuss leaving dance entirely because they felt they didn't have a choice, some left for a few years and came back, and others transitioned to another part of the industry. I think the transitions most accessible to parents were women choosing to recalibrate from performing to teaching dance at either the K-12 or collegiate level.
Overall, I was amazed by the creativity and positive outlook of these parents, whether they chose to keep dancing or not. They possessed so much beauty and resilience. I also did the interviews during the height of the pandemic, so the mothers were on Zoom appearing in the intimate spaces of their homes and many of their homes were just disasters! It was this really refreshing, authentic look at motherhood.
What advice would you give to working mothers in general?
Just as much as parents are marginalized in dance, people who choose not to become mothers, or can't become mothers, are just as marginalized in other areas. Ultimately, we must all do better at creating equitable and fair spaces for each other, no matter our parental status.
I think for mothers who do work, I would say bring both your advocate self and your fun self to work. For me, jumping in as an advocate for my child has been natural, so I'm trying to bring that into my work. I want to show up as a confident, fair and community – minded person.
I also think those moments of laughter I share with my son are key to create at work, too. Don't be afraid to have fun with what you do.
Ultimately though, don't be afraid to let your focus shift. Now that I'm a mother, I'm interested in doing things my son would be proud of me doing. I say no to a lot of things that would have excited me in an earlier time in life. But now, I'm seeing the world through my son's eyes, and I want him to get the very best version of me.