A conversation of dance and motherhood with Dallas Black Dance Theatre's Jessica Popoff
Background of Jessica Popoff
Garden City, MI native, Jessica Popoff joined second company, Dallas Black Dance Theatre: Encore! for the 2019-2020 season after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Ballet Pedagogy. There, Jessica had the opportunity to perform works by Trey McIntyre, David Hochoy, and Alejandro Cerrudo. Jessica is not only a dancer but, a mother to a beautiful two-year-old with her husband, Marcus Popoff. As amazing as it is to welcome a child into the world it is also a very scary time for a young woman starting her career. During the peak of the 2019-2020 season COVID-19 took full effect that sent every company in the world into a stay-at-home order. Jessica returned to the second company for the latter half of the 2020-2021 season. At the end of the season Jessica was promoted to Dallas Black Dance Theatre as a main company dancer. Our paths crossed for the first time as we both joined Dallas Black Dance Theatre:Encore!
Since the earlier years in dance women were quietly told to not have children because it will ruin their career. Company directors feared that they'd lose a dancer for months but who knows what their body would be after having a baby. We all know the saying" the show must go on," right? How do women in dance keep their standings in companies when having a baby? Typically, any woman who makes the choice to have a baby in the dance field waits until they are in a high or the highest position in a company to do so. But you do not want to wait too late due to forced/ premature retirement. Some women forego the idea of having children all together because they don't want to miss opportunities concerning roles and choreographers within the company. What time is the best time? Can you perfectly time your pregnancy to "snap back," in time? Why isn't creating a life with someone celebrated? The main thing many women fear is that their bodies will not be the same and they are correct in thinking that. Nobody will be the same after having a child whether it be natural or by c-section. The love that surrounds the child when it is born is never the same love when finding out that a dancer in the company has "fallen pregnant." In 2022 we are slowly but surely changing that narrative. Company directors are not replacing female dancers' due to pregnancy, which shows their confidence in the dancers abilities and desire. When finding out you were pregnant, what was the first thing that came to mind? What was it like to be pregnant mid-season during the height of COVID-19? How does a woman in dance wrap their head around living in the present and not worrying about the future? What is the one thing that convinced you get back to dance and make it work? What is the biggest struggle you think you have overcome or are still overcoming as a new mom and a professional dancer?
Jessica's Point of View
When I found out I was pregnant the first thought I had was my life is over, as dramatic as it may sound it was a big unplanned change. Being in my first six months as a professional dancer and my boyfriend, now husband still being in college, it was overwhelming. I assumed I would be leaving dance and there was no thought of how or when to return. I was terrified and I knew our lives as young adults and a couple were not going to be as we originally planned. In conclusion, it was a wild sense of emotion. My husband was elated and telling everyone that we were expecting and as excited as I was, I was not as eager to tell everyone, especially the dance world. Marcus being so solid helped ease my worries. When announcing my pregnancy to the dance world I was scared because of the mixed reviews that did eventually come. I immediately got the pushed congratulatory and happy responses even though I was not 100% there with how happy I was. On the other hand, I got the "damn, what are you going to do or oh you are so young."
With the world shutting down and the tragedies that arose with COVID-19, it could not have been better timing for me and my pregnancy, truly divine. Since Marcus was away for the first trimester, it was rough physically and emotionally. Mid-January I found out I was pregnant, my first trimester was end of February, Marcus came home for Spring break in mid-March, and boom we were in lockdown and that was such a blessing. Without COVID-19 we would not of had the opportunity to bond with one another and him with Dakota.
It is borderline impossible not to think three steps ahead when having a child and full-time career as a company dancer. With my husband traveling for work and Dakota not being able to come on tour with me at the moment, it is a constant thought of what to do next or how to rectify future situations. It is completely impossible to stay present when you have one million and ten things to worry about. As an example: We finished a show, had Monday off, rehearsed Tuesday and Wednesday, get her ready for me to leave onto our tour that Thursday on top of my husband leaving Tuesday for work. It is a lot being a professional dancer that has its own stresses on top of having a baby and whatever my husband needs from me. In a talk back after a show I jokingly said that work is my stress reliever and then coming home trying to be present with family.
The bottom line when I decided to come back to dance was, I needed it for my mental health. Dance has been the one consistent thing for me since I was three years old. When finding myself again after having Dakota and only taking class once a day I truly said "well, what am I now?" I became a mom and wife while temporarily leaving my career all at once, it was a lot to take in. There were moments where anxiety and postpartum depression played a key role in my life when I wished I could pick up my things and go dance or do other things. I got a call from Nycole Ray (Artistic Director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre: Encore!) about coming back to dance after reaching out to her months prior just to tell her I am ready for gigs if you know of any, but never the thought of hiring me back so soon. It was helpful that my husband was supportive and my mother-in-law was at home working and willing to help. I am Jessica the mom, Jessica the wife, but this is for me.
The biggest struggle at first was regaining my confidence because my body was very different. I rejoined the second company 4 months postpartum. I did not feel truly confident again until a month into joining the main company, a year or so after coming back to dance. Finding myself again took that duration of time because I needed to find my strength again. That was the one thing that made me comfortable. I am still struggling with trying to balance work and home life. If I am really connected in family life, I am not truly dedicated to my work and honestly it is probably something I have no control over all the time. With success in one part of my life I find myself experiencing guilt of not being as present in the other. I am thankful to our Artistic Director, Melissa M. Young for being understanding. It definitely takes a village.
It's a beautiful and crazy life. Even though it has been challenging, it has been my biggest blessing that I would not change it for the world. If you are someone who is wanting to start a family and still dance, it is definitely possible. The reward is amazing.
Photographers Listed Below
Photo 1: Shevaun Williams
Photo 2: Noor Eemaan Photos
Photo 3: Xavier Mack