Dance Informa continues its series, Juggling a Dance Career with Children, with Leanne Stojmenov, who shows that it’s possible to dance at an elite level and have children.
Principal dancer with The Australian Ballet, Leanne Stojmenov, defies stereotypes about dancers and parenting by continuing to dance at the highest rank in Australia’s premiere ballet company, after giving birth to her son, Max.
Stojmenov and her husband share care of three-year-old Max so she can continue to work as a principal dancer, and he is undergoing the elite ballet teacher training with The Australian Ballet School.
“I was promoted to principal in about 2011, then had Max, then returned as a principal artist,” Stojmenov explains. “You don’t come back exactly where you left off. The Australian Ballet is quite a fast-paced place to be in, but at the same time, I’ve been able to come back and enjoy dancing in a different way. I’m getting a lot more enjoyment out of it, more than I thought I would.”
Regaining her dancer identity
When you become a parent, you can lose a little bit of yourself. Stojmenov found that regaining her identity as a dancer was vital for her.
“Initially when I had Max, I was really tentative and scared to come back to work,” she confesses. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work for me, and I didn’t know what it would entail. I had a good amount of time with him before coming back. We had formed such an amazing bond, and coming back meant cutting those ties a bit.”
She continues, “It was hard at first, but a friend gave me some great advice. She said, ‘Give yourself a chance, come back fully, and see how you feel.’ So I did, and when I came back, I felt like myself again as a dancer. It’s a big part of my identity, and having that feeling again means I can be even better for Max. And it means I savour every moment I have performing and rehearsing.”
Taking each day as it comes
As a parent, you need to be super organised but also prepared to let things go with the flow when the unexpected arises.
“It is a juggle,” Stojmenov says. “I won’t deny it’s been really full on. We find out our schedules three days in advance at the company. So I have an idea of what I’m doing but still have to take each day as it comes.”
She adds, “My life is pretty much work and home being a mum. It’s amazing that I can have my passion as my job. If I didn’t get that fulfilment, it would be challenging with the time and hours I put in. I have to be really organised and make sure Max has consistency. It’s important that he is not surprised by things, even though my schedule fluctuates, and he gets enough time with me. He has constant people around him, and I spend time with him each morning, even when on tour.”
Touring with a child
Stojmenov is able to spend more time with Max when she’s on tour than when the company is working out of Melbourne, but making sure he has familiarity is the challenge while on tour.
“Melbourne is busier and harder to juggle, as our rehearsal periods are often from 10:30am to 6:30pm,” she explains. “By the time I get home, he’s in bed, which means I don’t get to see him as much. When we’re touring, we are performing, so we break in the afternoon and start later in the day. He’s mostly asleep when I’m performing. No matter what place we go to, if there is a time difference, I go straight into that time zone and routine, including breakfast, bath, reading time, bed. We take his own bedding and a certain teddy. If I’m not doing the routine, whoever is looking after him knows that exact structure.”
Stojmenov adds, “He seems very settled when we travel. I think partly because of structure and because he’s used to it. As long as he’s got his bedding and we do that nighttime routine, he can sleep anywhere.”
It takes a village…
Stojmenov admits that she needs the support of her partner, family and the company to be a touring performer.
“My husband travels with us as much as he can, and my mum helps a lot,” she reveals. “She’ll take time off work and travel over from Perth to be with us, often for three weeks at a time. Seeing her with Max has changed our relationship completely, for the better. The focus is more off me, and completely on Max, but in a really nice way. I’ve been able to take a step back and see that connection that she had with me when I was younger.”
She continues, “And it just wouldn’t be possible without my partner. He just has made everything happen, and he knows how much I love to do what I do. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to make it back to stage in the capacity I have.”
Of The Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director, David McAllister, Stojmenov notes that he has been very supportive. “The generation of dancers now, the principals, are the ones he has chosen. We’ve gone through the ranks with him as Director. He’s been very open and facilitated my return to dancing.”
Adapting to the changing child
“Each phase comes with its own challenges,” Stojmenov acknowledges. “When [Max] was a newborn, I was a fish out of water. Initially, the sleep deprivation was the hardest thing. My first full-length ballet when I came back was Swan Lake. Once I’d finished a show and wound down, it was about one o’clock, and Max would wake up at five in the morning. I remember it being quite tough initially, with the full exhaustion of my body physically from that type of performance and lack of sleep.”
But, she says, “Then that kind of went, and he started crawling, and I’d be chasing him everywhere. But they are beautiful changes that make you adapt as a person and be more in the moment. Sometimes my preparation might not be completely ideal. I might only have four hours sleep and the next night have to do a full-length ballet. There’s not an option; you just have to do it and do it to the best of your ability. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself because that is just wasted energy. That’s been a good learning curve, knowing how I can do on such little reserves.”
Returning to peak condition
“I decided to stop performing at about 14 weeks pregnant,” Stojmenov says. “I was working in an archival section, which was really amazing and got to do a lot of research on the past history of the company. Once that happened, I was really removed from it. I remember going to see a performance of Cinderalla. The role was created on me when it came out in 2013. I was heavily pregnant and remember watching it and thinking I couldn’t imagine being there and wondered if I’d ever reach that level again.”
She goes on, “I had a good solid three months after I had Max just with him. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to get back. At about three months, I’d be in our home Pilates studio whenever I could. The month after that, I’d come in and do classes. At about five months, I was doing classes every day and starting to do rehearsals. I had a bit of anxiety. My body felt very different. I never really thought I’d feel like I’d be in peak physical fitness again, but it comes back if you put the time in. I don’t think it was until I toured to London the next year that I felt myself again. But it didn’t matter; it was like falling back in love with ballet again, in a different way. I was often distracted, but I had more of an appreciation of what we get to do.”
Setting an example for others
“There are quite a few dancers in the company with children, including a soloist, senior artists and principals,” Stojmenov says. “The challenge is different for different ranks. For principal artists, we’re not performing every night. A senior artist or soloist could be on every night, and perform up to 180 shows a year. It did give me confidence to make the decision to have both a career and child because I could see that others had done that. But I think everyone’s path is so different. You need to make your own decisions about what you are comfortable with and what you are able and willing to give.”
Stojmenov is reluctant to give advice to other dancers thinking about having a child, because everyone’s journey is different.
“You can have so many things in place, but it really is like what everybody says. You have to be a bit more spontaneous, go with the flow and let go of preconceived ideas of how you think it should be. You can make it work. Everyone can make it work in their own way.”
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.