In Conversation with Dana Stephenson
"It's a loss of a big part of you - there's grief, excitement, relief, sadness and hope all mixed in one. I'm taking it day by day as I know retiring from professional ballet is a process, an unravelling, and also a rebirth in many ways."
Your earliest memories of dancing were as a toddler – what do you remember?
I remember joy, I remember feeling like my body just had to dance, the sensation of moving through space to music felt so right, so natural, and exactly what my body felt like doing. My last memories dancing on stage recently at the Royal Opera House in London felt very much the same - freedom, exhilaration and so much joy.
Your childhood dream was to dance with The Australian Ballet - can you share some of the most magical moments of your career?
When I look back at my 19-year career with The Australian Ballet, I have so many highlights and felt an abundance of magic in my day-to-day existence - both on stage and in the studio. There were many exciting Principal roles I danced and the lead up to them was thrilling and then that feeling of exhilaration dancing them. Kitri in Don Quixote was such a physical challenge, but also a role that felt like it suited me the most. The title role of Giselle after having my son Jasper was so special and sacred. Coppelia was the first ballet I ever saw. So the role of Swanhilda in Coppelia felt like I had really reached the top of my childhood dreams. My first show back after having the girls in George Balanchine's Serenade was probably the most 'perfect' performance of my career in terms of how I felt. It was not perfect, but it was a homecoming after a massive journey getting back to dancing, and also back to me. But my favourite memories really, are the times I shared in rehearsal and on stage with my dearest friends - friends who are family. Every time I danced with one of my closest friends, Chris Rodgers-Wilson, was a golden moment. We just could each other so intuitively, dancing with him felt like how it always should be. Those memories will forever glow the strongest, because I was sharing it with him.
What was the most challenging chapter of your career and why?
Even now, as I reflect back on 19 years, it's easy to gloss over the low points, but as cliche as it sounds, they helped me build more resilience and tenacity to push myself even more in a the way I truly needed. Any challenges along the way, ultimately helped me become even more myself in the end, it made me dive deeper and stay true to myself to be the best dancer I knew I could be. That journey to finding the self-confidence in my own unique abilities came from being told no or being disappointed. It wasn't about proving anyone wrong. It was more like proving it right to myself that I belonged there and could offer something special.
Some of my early years in the company were particularly challenging as I was fighting an uphill battle with an undiagnosed autoimmune thyroid condition called Hashimoto's Thyroditis. This essentially meant my body was attacking itself and my body changed dramatically. My metabolism slowed, I was depressed and so tired all the time, but something in me kept going. I had a wonderful naturopath who helped me discover ways to help myself. I am grateful for the learning and knowledge I gained, despite the situation where the learning came from. Once I was diagnosed properly while pregnant with my son and put on medication, it was a huge turning point.
How does it feel when you’re on stage?
Being on stage feels like my spirit is at home. It feels warm, encouraging, buzzing. The air feels charged with endless possibility, and something just takes over in me, like I just seem to know what to do. A performance space often means performance anxiety goes hand in hand, but I feel mostly very relaxed on stage. After all the ours practicing and fine tuning in the studio, it's a time where I truly trust the music, the steps and the experience and let the spontaneity of the moment and the deeper intuitive knowledge and feeling in my body take the reings. It's so liberating.
You’re the mother of three – a son and twin girls. What has been the most rewarding part of motherhood for you?
Seeing them become their own little people, seeing them embrace the world and people, being curious and brave and seeing the beauty and light in the world is so special. Seeing them being kind and thoughtful and feeling love for each other is the most rewarding thing so far.
As a twin mother, what surprised you most about having twins?
How challenging it is! You can't really know before you have twins, but you really can't split yourself in two (or three if you have another child) and as a mother that's very confronting. For me, and this is something I have to remind myself daily, what often feels like failure is actually just reality. You can't meet all their needs all at once and while that feels horrible as a mother, it's the sum of all the parts of your parenting and time with your children that counts. I really like having close connected moments with my kids one-on-one and with twins it's close to impossible. It's like starting a conversation at 7am and being interrupted and diverted all day long until bedtime, and it feels like nothing was every completed or done well in between. It's another big lesson in accepting with true good intentions, good enough parenting is good enough.
You have experienced severe postnatal depression and anxiety – how did you overcome this and where did you seek support?
I look back at the time I was pregnant with the twins during Covid lockdowns in Melbourne and then when they were born and that first year, it is no wonder I had such severe postnatal depression and anxiety. It should have come as no shock given our own unique circumstances in that crazy Covid world, but it was a shock. It 'shouldn't' have happened to me was the story I was telling myself. It was awful and I felt truly ashamed of being so 'lucky' and yet feeling like I did. I could rationalise those sorts of thoughts about being grateful, but I couldn't function - my mind felt unlike my own and I felt so disconnected from my babies and the whole mothering experience. It was an alternative universe. And I couldn't leave the house, I was terrified of looking after our babies because I felt so incapable and incompetent. I obsessed over tiny details in the day, I would beat myself up when anything went wrong, and I wasn't able to sleep when they slept. I was stuck on a tired but wired loop and I felt hopeless. Still, my body would produce huge amounts of milk for these babies and they were thriving, and that tenacious ballet dancer in me kept getting back up, even at my worst, but I was not thriving at all. I lost a lot of confidence in just being a person and it took a long time to socially feel like myself again. I was very shaky for a long time in many ways. With treatment from an excellent maternal health psychologist over Telehealth, I could find glimmers of my own mind again and find some distance from those feelings. And this is how I started dancing again, as like a therapy for my mind, doing something familiar, listening to the piano each day in ballet class and connecting with moving my body in a way that usually brought me joy. Dancing saved me in that way.
Why is it so important to be honest about the experience of motherhood?
I feel like it's important to be honest about motherhood in a way it's important to be honest about being human. It's a whole spectrum of experiences and it's a very narrow window we put motherhood into, when it's all roses and somehow exempt from other less favourable emotions like sadness, frustration, disappointment or just finding this new skill of parenting hard! We don't often question why someone might be finding their university degree challenging but society an be quite judgmental about being open about finding motherhood hard or like it's not what you thought it would be. I don't think it has to take away from the fact that being able to have a child is an absolute miracle. To acknowledge growing, shaping and nurturing a person (and doing so on next to no sleep for years) is a full experience of many valid feelings all at once, seems very natural to me. It helps us all feel more connected to that joined similar experience, which I think is only a positive thing.
Finally, what Printebebe pieces did you pick and why?
I have chosen the Caramel Dress in Sea Mist for my girls, something about the soft floatiness and soft sleeves speak of summer twirls on the balcony or the beach in their own little creative worlds. Lulu and Lottie love to dance and love showing me their ballet dances they spontaneously make up and I watch in wonder at how beautifully unique they both are. Two wild precious spirits and how very in the moment they are, spontaneous and free.