Supporting Dance Parents

An Interview with Lucy McCrudden of Dance Mama

Lucy McCrudden is the founder of UK-based Dance Mama, a resource for pregnant and parenting dance professionals, through which she shares the stories of other dance professionals who are parenting as well as provides several mechanisms of support. One of these supports is Dance Mama Live!, a 10-month professional development online program. Here, Lucy talks about why it is important to her as a dance industry professional and mother of two to find ways to support other parenting dance professionals, as well as why the dance industry’s lack of support for parents is a deficit to the industry overall.

Lucy McCrudden headshot

Lucy McCrudden, photo by Pierre Tappon

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Can you tell me a little about your own dance history – what shaped who you are today?

My first stage appearance was in my mum’s womb in a local production of the musical La Belle Helene (perhaps she is the original Dance Mama!). I started my dance journey proper back in the mid-80s at age four at my local dance school in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, studying the ‘holy trinity’ of ballet, tap and modern. This was dovetailed with my parents’ involvement in their local amateur musical theatre company and weekend music school. The Royal Shakespeare Company is based in my hometown and fortuitously, I had the opportunity of taking part in two professional productions with them before I was 12 years old.

At 18, I won a Dance and Drama Award to study my honours degree at world-renowned conservatoire, Laban (now Trinity Laban), and before graduating had embarked on my teaching career. I taught at over 250 schools in 18 months all over the UK with the education company Wise Moves, and then consolidated this experience as a dance artist in residence at DanceXchange based in Birmingham. Here I was nurtured to teach all levels (including their resident professional company), choreograph, and devise learning projects connected with visiting mainstage companies to the Hippodrome Theatre such as Carlos Acosta and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. Soon after this a role came up at London Contemporary Dance School which became Manager of the government-funded Centre for Advanced Training programme, which I led for six years.

I then left to return to freelancing, and delivered projects for Rambert, English National Ballet and Yorke Dance Project before becoming pregnant with my first child. On my return to freelance work, I took a management role in Rambert’s Learning & Participation team. When I was on maternity leave, pregnant with my second child, the opportunity to become head of this department came up which I successfully applied for and which was the company’s first job-share when my son was just eight days old. On returning to work the second time I felt little had changed to help support parents working in my sector and left to focus my energies on developing Dance Mama.

How did Dance Mama come about?

While I was pregnant with my eldest child, I felt very lucky that I had an empathetic line manager who supported me to teach, write and deliver projects at Rambert. However, the official industry guidance was a solitary factsheet, and as brilliant as that information was (and it’s still available on www.dancemama.org/resources), I felt it wasn’t animated enough to support me as much as I needed. After my daughter was born, I felt so strongly about this lack of support that I wrote an article in One Dance UK’s magazine. In writing this article, I interviewed colleagues across the sector at all different stages of parenthood and it was the stories that I felt needed volume and space. So, I set up a free site and put them up there on my own initiative and kept adding to it alongside my employed roles.

British choreographer Rosie Kay commented that “Dance Mama has been really invaluable for me to read – I really don’t know how other women do it,” which gave me an understanding that it was a valuable resource and not only were people using it, they needed it.

When I returned from my second maternity leave, I felt little had changed, although the Parents in Performing Arts Campaign was gathering momentum and invited me to be an ambassador. I decided to use the energy and time that I had to focus on developing Dance Mama and refreshed the site in 2018 and developed my business plan to grow Dance Mama into a resource that creates connection, inspiration and information for parents in the dance sector on and off stage.

Approximately how many stories have been shared on Dance Mama? What are some of the biggest themes that emerge from those stories?

There are now approximately 60 stories on the site of men and women in all sorts of roles and family set-ups from a variety of backgrounds who share their experience through a similar set of questions. I was inspired by James Caan’s approach in Inside the Actors Studio (which I watched on my first maternity leave) and had always admired a ‘Day in the Life’ column in the Sunday Times (sadly not in it anymore) as it gave a snapshot into how people operate. I decided to take the same approach with the interviews on the site as, although there are similar themes, it highlights that everyone’s journey is unique. These stories have now developed into video and audio format over the pandemic. This was in my original plan and has been accelerated by the pandemic giving way to the rise of Zoom and audience acceptance of broadcasting from domestic settings. These ‘In Conversations…’ have now been transferred to a podcast, making it even easier for people to listen in whilst they are doing the school run or chores.

The main themes that surface from the stories are: isolation, challenges with childcare provision and costs, navigating raising a family on limited means, lack of systemic support for post-natal rehabilitation, identity and loss of it, discrimination and the challenge of juggling competing priorities, to name but a few. There are a mix of positive and negative experiences, but sadly (and the reason why I am amplifying these issues) they lean toward the latter. It is very difficult to be a working parent in dance and this leads to talent retention issues and poor representation of women leaders in the sector.

Dance Mama also offers a variety of resources including a 10-month program, mentorship, classes, workshops, and resources for parents who work in dance. Can you share a little about how you developed these?

These mechanisms of support really stem from my experience over almost two decades in the learning sector, married with my own personal experience as a mother. I took approximately two to three months at the end of 2018 to formulate exactly what I felt was missing and could be useful to individuals, as I felt that with the development of other organisations like the PIPA Campaign, systemic support was getting attention. However, systemic change can be quite slow and, in order for parents to stay in the sector, they have to rely on their own resilience and tenacity. These are qualities that dancers cultivate navigating our unpredictable careers anyway and I wanted to find out how could I help people dial this up further. The answer I felt was to keep them inspired, make the connection and engagement fun and accessible. Parents have very little time, so they need to have ease and speed at finding content that will inspire them.

Dance Mama Live! is the flagship focus for 2021. It’s 10-month programme of professional development and this was created both pre and during the pandemic. Its original pilot form was in-person at Sadler’s Wells and was intended to run on a monthly basis on-site. Then, just as we were about to apply for funding, the pandemic hit. It took a few months to figure out not only how to pivot, but if my intended partner organisations were going to have the means to take part with the heavy impact that COVID had on all of us. I was always keen to do something online as I felt that it was the most efficient way for isolated new parents and busy parents to get connected to their artform and colleagues.

We tried again for funding and at a dramatic three days after the third national UK lockdown was announced – success! This was quite overwhelming as I was required to homeschool, so I made the difficult decision to deliver Dance Mama Live! as well as homeschool which meant very long days that could be exceptionally stressful at times, as essentially I was working two full-time jobs. However, the thought that people would be left even longer without a point of connection was more important to me than the difficulty. Feedback from the almost 80-strong enrollers so far has been very positive and Dance Mama Live! has supported people greatly.

From your perspective, how has the pandemic affected parents who work in dance?

The pandemic without a doubt has had a huge negative impact for parents who work in dance in a variety of hideous ways. Firstly, the long closure of theatres and studios has meant that people have had to find work elsewhere, and for some this temporary measure may become permanent with a loss of faith in their own abilities and the industry, combined with more regular predictable income from other sectors– even if the work they are doing is not fulfilling in the same way. For parents of children who are not at school, the social isolation has had a detrimental impact, as having adult conversation, empathy, and company is vital in ensuring good mental health while raising young children. This is something we have all experienced during this time, and anyone who felt this before has experienced an amplification of these feelings.

Then for those with school-age children, the time taken up to either emergency homeschool and/or work simultaneously has been wildly stressful and bottle-necked any work that was in play previous to these periods. This toxic concoction is reflected in the PIPA Campaign’s recent research highlighting that an alarming “80% of respondents were wholly or partly self-employed: many failed to qualify, or only qualified for a small amount of SEISS support, frequently this was because of having taken a period of maternity leave or reduced working hours due to care responsibilities.”

Since you started Dance Mama, have you seen more awareness and acceptance that dance professionals can be parents, or has it stayed the same or gotten worse?

Attitudes are moving in a better direction, but progress is slow. This is due to the same old challenges dance faces – marginalisation of the artform and its complexities making it difficult for external sectors to understand and support, and therefore, lack of funding. The sector is also over-subscribed with performers and people wanting to work in it which means that it’s a ‘buyer’s market’ so-to-speak, and choreographers and leaders can often value what are quick and easy solutions to their recruitment and don’t have the interest or will to support artists or employees who may have high artistic value but carry more caring needs. The emphasis here being product-focused, rather than enriching the process to the product, which arguably would render an even-better artistic product.

Is there anything upcoming you want to specifically promote or draw attention to?

I would probably say the podcast at this moment in time as more content will be added from the Dance Mama Live! sessions and released at a later date in the year.

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Learn more at www.dancemama.org or listen to the podcast here. Follow Lucy on Twitter or Facebook @thedancemama and on Instagram @lucymccrudden.

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