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Lactating on Stage

I was back on stage performing six months after my son was born. I had no business being on stage. I had had a two-year absence from dance at that point. I was never a technically strong dancer to begin with, and now I had no idea how to move my new body.

Plus, I did not have much time to recover as I had to return to work six weeks after giving birth. Adjunct faculty at the UA did not have maternity leave, or benefits for that matter. And not only did I need the job to cover medical expenses, but I also needed the income to immigrate my husband.

So, there I was, teaching six weeks after giving birth. Sleep deprived. Struggling with postpartum depression from all the large life transitions that happened to me in the span of a few months, including my elopement that happened six months prior. My hubby was living in LA at the time and dealing with my brother-in-law’s bipolar manic episodes -although he was not diagnosed yet and we did not know what was happening. With my husband still living in another state, I was basically a single mother at this point in time. I depended on in-laws, such as my mother in law or my husband’s cousins, to watch my newborn child. I would also take him in with me when I had to teach because I could not afford childcare and living expenses on my measly adjunct salary. My few-months-old son attended my classes, and the faculty and research meetings in his car seat carrier more than a few times. All of this drained me spiritually, emotionally, and financially.

So why on earth did I put myself on stage only six months after having a child and two years of not dancing at all? I was commissioned to create three pieces based on the experiences of undocumented students in the local community college. Not wanting the opportunity to pass me by, I said yes, figuring I could find a handful of dancers to work with me and I would not have to be on stage. With this project, I was hopeful for the opportunity to work only as a choreographer, someone who creates dances, rather than as a dancer who would perform the work on stage. I knew at the time that I did not have the capacity to be a dancer/choreographer or someone who both creates and performs the work. I needed three dancers, preferably Latinx. I found one dancer, however, the director who commissioned the work wanted an ensemble on stage. I felt pressure to find at least a trio of dancers. My husband, a recently retired professional folklόrico dancer, wouldn’t commit to the project. At the time, he was living in Corona, CA and was commuting 16 hours round trip to Tucson every other weekend. As such, he could not and would not commit to attending rehearsals when he was in town. I couldn’t find anyone else. I was so desperate for bodies, I put a visual artist on stage. I felt I had no other choice: I needed to perform. Oh, a foreshadow of things to come…

The rehearsals, combined with work and mothering a nursing newborn, took a toll on my body. I came down with lactation mastitis, which is so incredibly painful, three times while breastfeeding. Feeding times often fell during class and rehearsals, I could feel myself leaking. The milk ducts were full, then they clogged, and I got the very painful infection. I felt like I had to suck it up and deal with it. Deal with the pain and the infections.

As an adjunct, I had little to no agency over my workload or teaching schedule. As far as the university was concerned, I was to be grateful that I had work at the institution, especially given that I do not have a PhD. My schedule was at the mercy of sabbaticals and professors buying out classes. Oftentimes, I was notified two to three days before classes started if I was going to have a job that semester. It was nerve-racking and stress inducing. My financial situation was always in flux because I was never sure if I would have a contract the following semester. To make matters worse, I knew I was expendable because the one time that I tried to negotiate a contract for a bit more money, the university ceased negotiations and gave the contract to a recently graduated masters student. Nonetheless, I accepted the offer to teach classes fall 2008, six weeks after my child was born. I took the contract because I loved teaching and I needed the income. Afterall, I was sponsoring my spouse’s immigration and I had a newborn at home. Yet, I was at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, I had no say over which classes I taught and I knew that I could not ask to change my class schedule because that would put my contract at risk. I had no agency to negotiate and I couldn’t breastfeed or pump as I lectured in front of 180 students. And for some reason, perhaps the exhaustion, the lack of a support system, or my inexperience as a mother, I did not even consider bringing my son to rehearsal and breast feeding him there when he needed it.

To add to the madness, the director who commissioned the piece had a hard time securing affordable rehearsal space…again a foreshadow of things to come…and got us free space 45 minutes across town. Which meant that it took 3 hours of travel time, round trip, to get to rehearsal in addition to an hour and a half rehearsal (30-minute drive to my in-laws, 15-minute instruction time for the baby, 45-minute drive to rehearsal, then rinse and repeat to go home). There were four to five hours away from my child that were physically painful. My breasts swelled, leaked, and swelled some more as feeding times came and went during those hours in the car and in the studio. Given the circumstances, I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. After working on choreography, I felt as if I had nothing left to give of myself to the artistic process as a dancer. My body felt heavy, achy, and my muscles felt tight. I was in the process of recovering my core strength and I was still getting used to the new structures of my ribs and hips which spread during pregnancy and childbirth. I was struggling to figure out how to move my body after motherhood. I remember being frustrated to the point of tears when my body was not able to execute technique in the way that it used to in the dance studio.

I should not have done it, but I did it anyway, and this performance was the catalyst for creating my company, Safos Dance Theatre. Looking back, this performance was also the complete foreshadow of things to come. Seven years later, all these things -- difficulty finding dancers, affordable rehearsal space, and childcare -- still plague both me and my organization. Seven years later, the same struggles, the same battles. Go figure!

All of this work, all of the physical pain I incurred, all the time away from my son, culminated with a one-night performance. I was standing on a table in black beginning the piece that was my solo. It was a small intimate theater with 120 seat house. Sold out. It was the first section of my piece. The beginning of the dance. My baby is in the audience, six months old. As soon as the lights start coming up, slow fade, I start to leak. I am lactating on stage before the dance piece even begins. I pray the pad in my nursing bra which has a sports bra on top, absorbs all of the milk and it doesn’t show. Prayers answered. It didn’t.

Yvonne Montoya is a mother, dancemaker, international artist, consultant, independent dance scholar, published author, and founding director of Dance Theatre based in Tucson, AZ.Originally from Alburquerque, NM, Montoya is a process-based dancemaker who creates low tech site specific and site adaptive pieces for non-traditional dance spaces. Her work is grounded in and inspired by the landscapes, languages, cultures, and the aesthetics of the U.S. Southwest. Montoya is the lead choreographer for Safos and under her direction, the company won the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s Lumie Award for Emerging Organization in 2015. 2017-2018 Montoya was a Post-Graduate Fellow in Dance at Arizona State University where she founded and organized the inaugural Dance in the Desert: A Gathering of Latinx Dancemakers. Montoya is a 2019-2020 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, a 2019-2020 Dance/USA Artist Fellow, and a recipient of the 2019 NALAC POD grant. She continues to work as a thought leader and collaborator on Dance in the Desert.

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