Baby bottles and tutus

At 3-1/2 months pregnant, ballerina Melody Herrera leapt onto stage in a September performance of "The Sleeping Beauty." While she wasn't showing, her body already felt different.

She found out just how different when she moved into an arabesque and lost her balance. "I sort of toppled forward," she laughs, three months later. "No one said anything, but I'm sure it looked pretty funny."

Now, with the Nutcracker season well under way and no way to hide her bulging belly, Ms. Herrera is sitting it out. And she's not alone: There's a baby boom at the Houston Ballet. Three women are expecting and three others have just returned to the stage after becoming moms.

Getting pregnant in the middle of their careers was unheard of a decade ago, but these six Houston ballerinas are part of a new generation of dancers who don't want to wait to have a family.

From California to New York, ballet companies are brimming with babies. San Francisco Ballet has five dancing moms, Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet each have two, and American Ballet Theater star Julie Kent is pregnant.

Because the body-conscious profession is so demanding and a ballerina's career so short, the pressure has been to have children late in their careers or after retiring, at say age 35 or 40. Sitting out for even a few months can mean missed opportunities and a lengthy return.

But more and more female dancers are risking it - especially in companies where the management is mommy-friendly. That 1970s notion that women can have it all is finally gaining a toehold in the ballet.

"It used to be unheard of that a prima ballerina, never mind the lesser souls, had children. Sometimes even if you got married, they threw you out," says Margot Lehman, a board member of the American Dance Guild in New York and a former ballet teacher. "But that is changing, I believe."

And changing for the better, say both dancers and their directors. San Francisco principal dancer Katita Waldo, whose son is 4 years old, says she is dancing better than before. "Having James has been a boon to my dancing," she says after a recent performance of "The Nutcracker." "I hadn't taken serious time off since I was 16 and I had acquired a lot of bad habits. When I came back, I had to retrain. Now, I'm stronger than ever."

Until recently, some companies actively discouraged female dancers from starting families. It wasn't until the late 1980s that the dancers' union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, finally included maternity leave as a regular part of negotiated contracts.

"Many more of our contracts contain pregnancy clauses, some even over and above what the Medical Leave Act requires," says Deborah Allton, the guild's staff counsel and a retired dancer. But, she adds, "It still really depends on the company. While attitudes are changing, they are changing slowly. That pressure to not have a family hasn't disappeared entirely."

It's the support from above that makes all the difference, say many dancing moms. In Houston's case, the new artistic director, Stanton Welch, has a lot to do with the company's relaxed, family-friendly environment. He grew up playing in his mother's dressing room while she prepared for a performance as a principal in the Australian Ballet. So it seems natural - and normal - to have children at the ballet, Mr. Welch says.

One of his first tasks upon arriving in Houston six months ago was to persuade principal dancer Barbara Bears to return to the stage.

She retired last year after having her son, Ethan, and thought she was through with dancing. "But he wanted me to give it a shot and see if it would work," she says. "There were a lot of challenges to coming back, but it has been worth it." Getting her body back in shape was the hardest challenge. Figuring out day care during the erratic hours of rehearsals and performances was another.

Another dancing mom, soloist Susan Bryant, says she felt a little jealous of other ballerinas who would be sleeping in after a late performance, while she was up early taking care of her newborn, Nathan.

But these women will be the first to say it's not much different from any mother trying to juggle a career and kids. "It's a lot of work. But it's so nice to go home now," says Ms. Bryant. "Nathan gives me more to think about than just my career."

All three of the expectant moms say they've been encouraged by watching their predecessors' successful return to the stage. They've been asking a lot of questions and sharing baby books and tips.

The group is also pushing for a kind of day care room backstage. In the end, they say, it's about having it all. "I wanted to continue dancing, but have a baby before I was too old to enjoy him. Now, I have both and I love it," says principal dancer Lauren Anderson, retying her 7-month-old Lawrence's red tennis shoes. He's being passed around backstage into the hands of eager, cooing ballerinas.

Ms. Anderson drops another secret while Lawrence distracts the group: "I'm thinking about having another."

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