Forget the Hollywood obsession with losing the baby weight following pregnancy. Angelina Jolie's life in the spotlight is a piece of low-fat cake compared with the pressure that ballerinas endure.
Consider Jennifer Fournier and Stephanie Hutchison, principal dancer and first soloist, respectively, with the National Ballet of Canada.
Dressed in casual dance clothes, they enter a studio at the Walter Carsen Centre in downtown Toronto, a beguiling mixture of happiness, worry, fear and drive. Both ballerinas have recently come back to work part-time following the births of their babies to perform in the National Ballet's production of West Side Story Suite.
"There's a central paradox of being a ballerina and being pregnant," says Ms. Fournier with a deep sigh of exhaustion that belies her freshly scrubbed appearance.
"Being a ballerina is all about fighting your body, fighting the effects of time. It's about being preternaturally young and beautiful. You have these 20-year-olds nipping at your heels all the time."
She winces; sighs again. "And being pregnant is about surrender to your body. You're going to gain 40 pounds. You have to deal with it. You have to accept it."
Ms. Fournier, who is 38, delivered her second baby, Henry, 14 weeks ago. Her first child, Olivia, is seven years old. Ms. Hutchinson is 36, and had her first baby, Charlotte, nine weeks ago. They both returned to the studio about five weeks ago.
Since West Side Story Suite, which runs this month, is not classical ballet, the production does not demand as much from the dancers, either in terms of expectations about their weight or their level of fitness. Still, the women have given themselves little time to recover postpartum. Dance is like a husband, whom they cannot live without for long. It is central to their identity.
But also, the speed with which ballerinas return to work is often determined by the logistics of maternity leave. On the advice of her obstetrician, Ms. Fournier stopped dancing when only two months pregnant. That's when her mat leave began, which meant that once she had the baby, little time off remained.
"I gained about 47 pounds with my pregnancy," says Ms. Hutchinson, who at 5 foot 6 weighs 128 pounds, 15 pounds above what she calls her ideal "tutu unitard weight." She has been breastfeeding her baby, who accompanies her mother on this recent afternoon. "The first 25 pounds came off easily," she says. "I made, created and delivered this beautiful baby," she laughs, cuddling Charlotte, who lies on a mat beside her. "And my body has snapped back to this point so well."
Pregnancy for a ballerina is a major career decision. "It's pretty traumatic. You worry if you will get your body back. It is your instrument for your art," Ms. Hutchinson says. "It's probably why I stayed in the studio for so long. I knew that at my age, it wouldn't be a good idea to stop in my second month." She performed character parts until the end of her sixth month.
She purposely delayed pregnancy until this age. She and her husband, actor Kirk Hansen, have been married for 11 years. "The end of the [ballet]career happens to coincide with the end of your reproductive career," she says. "By the time you are 40, most people have finished their classical ballet careers, and most women are not having babies past 40. It's a decision all ballerinas have to make."
Ms. Fournier, on the other hand, had her first child soon after she married journalist Martin Cej eight years ago. She had been told she may not be able to conceive and didn't want to risk waiting until her late 30s to find out whether she could. At a similar height to Ms. Hutchinson, she gained almost 40 pounds with her second pregnancy, and is close to reaching her ideal weight again.
"Dancers are so competitive," Ms. Fournier says. "Sometimes, I get the creeps about women who get pregnant and maintain that competitiveness. They're like, 'How small can I stay? How fast can I get my jeans on?' I notice that with women in general, not just ballerinas. But it's not a race, and I always think, 'What about the baby? Let's just have a healthy baby.' "
Her pregnancies have caused people to question her commitment to dance. "Absolutely, there is that," she acknowledges. "Especially after two kids. But the proof is when you get onstage, and they can see that you're dancing well."
In fact, the experience of motherhood has deepened her art, she maintains. "Your understanding of love is deeper and richer. You're much more compassionate. That refracts through everything that I do. I feel that anybody who dismisses having children in simplistic terms is missing the complexity of it. The act of having children, in a weird way, makes us capable of doing more."
Both women have found the physical readjustment after birth to be a challenge. "The pelvic floor, all those muscles that we work so hard on in Pilates are gone," Ms. Fournier notes as Ms. Hutchinson nods in agreement.
But if they can regain mastery over their bodies, the one thing that's out of their control is their babies' behaviour, which can have an enormous effect on their ability to perform. Ms. Hutchinson's baby is easy, she says. The night before, Charlotte slept a solid six hours.
Ms. Fournier's first child was like that. But her son is a bit colicky. Her previous night was a nightmare. She put Henry down at 8 p.m. At 11 p.m., he was hungry. She tended to him again at 2, 4, 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning. She is breastfeeding but the stress and exhaustion have diminished her milk supply. In the morning, she walked her daughter to school and the baby was howling the whole way, she says. When she got home, the nanny arrived so she could go to ballet class at 10 a.m. "But I thought, 'Oh, I just can't.' So I lay on the couch for an hour. My nerves are raw. I came in at 11:40." She sighs deeply. "Today was a bad day."
Despite the setbacks, both women are delighted with the balance they have found in their lives as dancers and mothers.
"There are a lot of ballerinas out there who never had children. There are a lot of great ones, and I don't know if they would have been able to do what they did if they had had children," Ms. Fournier says.
Still, she adds, all they have are "cats and memories."