The first time I saw soloist Sarah Orza dance was as she performed the role of the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington. She was sublime and the 4 preteen/teen girls I was sitting with gasped and whispered about her extension, her feet, her artistry, and her hands. Their excitement was palpable (sorry anyone sitting near us that may have been disturbed by the energy coming from our row) but mine was more subdued. While I admired her skill and artistry and marveled at her technique and her performance was stunning, I was intrigued by her for other reasons.
Like how does she not leak all over those gorgeous costumes?
By act 2 her boobs must be so engorged.
She can dance on her toes, extend a leg past her head balanced on a piece of paper mache, leap effortless over people’s heads, AND make milk for her 10 month old?
Yes, yes she can. Perhaps even more amazing (can it get more amazing?) was the reality that she could do much of that not only because of her biology, talent, skill, and hard work, but because she is in a supportive environment.
The ballet world is known for rigorous schedules, demanding physical requirements, competitive peers, limited opportunities, body type expectations, controlling dietary habits, short careers, and breath-taking performances of athletic artistry. Nobody has ever thought of the ballet profession as being family friendly. Yet at a time when major corporations are struggling with implementing federal regulations supportive of mothers pumping their breastmilk in the work place, an organization in the nonprofit ballet profession is figuring out how to make it work. In an extremely competitive field where motherhood used to be seen as career ending situation, more and more women are finding they can start a family and continue on their professional track.
At just 4 years of age, little Sarah was enrolled in her first ballet class. She enjoyed it and was encouraged for her natural aptitude. Around 12 and 13 years of age, with the encouragement of her instructors, Sarah experienced a resurgence of interest. Her devotion and hard work paid off with the opportunity for even more devotion and hard work when she was accepted and attended the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York. At just 18 she received an apprenticeship at the New York City Ballet where she danced her way up the ranks for 7 years. Then, in an unusual move that would foreshadow what was to come in her career, Sarah stepped away from dance to listen to her heart. Burned out and unsure of what she wanted to do next, she worked in jewelry design for a year. In ballet, a year is an eternity, leaving the studio for a year often means you don’t go back.
But not for Sarah, engaged to a principal dancer, she wasn’t far from the dance world and in 2008 moved from New York to Seattle for her future husband’s career. The stage began calling and Sarah asked for an audition at PNB as well, in just 3 weeks of getting back into the studio, she had her audition and subsequently, a job offer.
From 2008-2012, Sarah and husband Seth, a principal dancer with PNB, enjoyed marriage and dance together. Then in 2012 they went into parenthood with careful planning. Looking at the season schedule, they tried to time the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery just right and lucky for them, their plan worked. Sarah’s last performance with PNB before she gave birth was in the Nutcracker near the end of her first trimester. At that point, also enrolled in college classes, Sarah worked in the marketing and communications department of the company as an intern until the home birth of her daughter Lola on May 15th, 2013.
Sarah took 8 weeks to just recover and babymoon. She didn’t even think about returning to physical activity in that time, just respected her body’s need for rest and both her’s and Lola’s need for bonding. When I asked her about that time and how she approached that time and the time after she said “My body created this life, I didn’t really lose the weight at first, I wanted to hold onto it. It was important to enjoy this window of time and my body had already done so much for me as an amazing vessel, I wanted to be gentle with it. I was never going to feel the same again, I couldn’t go back to what my body was before having Lola and maybe that’s ok.”
Certainly her body was changed forever and her desire to breastfeed was one very obvious change for her body. Breastfed herself until she was 3 years old, a year before starting her what would be training for her professional career, Sarah was confident that she would breastfeed her own children. Seth was on board and willing to do what he could to support her in reaching her goals and Sarah prepared for returning from maternity leave by communicating with Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, that she would be breastfeeding and it was a priority. While the administrative side of PNB had provisions for breastfeeding mothers in the office, there hadn’t been many ballerinas that required accommodations for pumping. Still, willing to learn and having had some experience with a few ballerinas before, Mr. Boal and the company were ready and willing to support Sarah.
When she returned to the company in the fall of 2013 arrangements had been made and flexibility was required of everyone. The community of the company was supportive and not only did Sarah get back in shape, the 2013-2014 season found her cast as a soloist in some impressive and demanding roles including the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty and one of the most demanding roles in classical ballet, Giselle in spite of hiccups along the way. Early on, as she was working on toning and becoming familiar with this new version of her body, Sarah often found herself in a nearby closet during class time pumping her milk and missing out on the grande allegro portion of the class. This impacted her jumps resulting in this strength of hers a temporary weakness. Sometimes the cast would have to wait for her for rehearsals but they would take advantage of the opportunity to work pieces without her. During performances she would pump in the dressing room as needed and the other ballerinas got used to seeing Sarah hooked up to the pump expressing her milk. “I had two full time jobs plus being a mother, pumping and dance, I worked at both of them full time.” With videos and a piece of Lola’s clothing she tucked into her dance bag, Sarah found that she responded well to the pump even with all the demands she put on her body as an athletic artist.
But between the support of her husband Seth, her mother staying with Lola close enough to the theater and studio for Sarah to run home during the day to breastfeed some of the feeds, Peter, and the rest of the PNB family, she was able to make it work, not only being able to exclusively breastfeed (with her pumping when she was away from Lola) but pumping enough to donate. It wasn’t long before Sarah’s jumps were soaring again too.
Sarah made it clear that she knew going into this that she was willing to sacrifice to make it work, her breastfeeding goals were so important to her that she would skip going back to work if necessary. With a mixture of pride and gratitude Sarah explained it didn’t come to that because of the support of Seth as a very hands on dad, support from her mother, her boss Peter as the artistic director of the company, and her coworkers understanding that her lactating didn’t impair her dancing. What kept her going she said: “I’ve kept my eye on the prize, Lola, her health and safety all along.”
And it’s Lola that inspires her in continuing to take leaps in her dance. Sarah isn’t done with ballet, at 33 years old she has quite a few good years still ahead of her and she’s working hard pursuing her career goals along with her family goals. “It’s not worth leaving Lola if I don’t push myself. I’m going to keep reaching, I love ballet and I love my daughter, I have to commit myself fully to both to make it worth the sacrifices required. Both Seth and I do.”
Sarah has been a leader within the company regarding maternity policy and breastfeeding. This year three other ballerinas were expecting little ones and there were open conversations about breastfeeding in the studio and dressing rooms. PNB was ready and prepared to have appropriate accommodations in place for these dancers should they need space to pump for their babies as well.
Lola and Sarah are still breastfeeding, Sarah plans to let Lola wean when she’s ready. This next season Sarah isn’t planning on pumping backstage as Lola has taken to solids just fine and is well over a year. But that breastfeeding bond is still special for them right now.
When I got to go back with my eldest to Seattle to see Sarah dance as Giselle this past spring, I was moved to tears by her performance. The grace, strength, and dedication as she played the role of a young maiden driven insane by love lost and then sacrificed herself as one of the mysterious willis dancing all night to keep the man she loved alive, I forgot during the performance that she is also the mother of a sweet little girl. Her dedication and passion for her craft made it so all I saw was the heartbroken Giselle on stage. When I got to hug Sarah following the performance, all I saw was the sweet dedicated mother with a passion for her daughter.
Sarah will be onstage again this year at Pacific Northwest Ballet and I’m certain I’ll be making the drive from Portland to Seattle to be mesmerized by her performance again. To get tickets to a performance, visit pnb.org. You can also find Sarah pictured on PNBs Facebook and Instagram as well as on her own Instagram.
How has your place of employment supported you in your breastfeeding journey? How did your coworkers respond? What do you think would help more women reach their breastfeeding goals while maintaining a presence in the work place?