Last Christmas, ballet dancer Dana Stephensen spent the day trying to escape the sweltering heat in a darkened room, setting up newborn twin daughters, Lulu and Lottie, whom she shares with Lachlan “Lachy” Gillespie , aka Purple Wiggle.
At the time, the overwhelmed mother of three – she also has son Jasper, 6, from a previous relationship – thought she had definitely hung up her pointe shoes. But 12 months later, she is out of the newborn bubble and back on stage as part of the Australian Ballet’s celebration gala.
“Dana’s mom, Glenva, and I watched Dana dance with the girls in her womb at her last performance before she went on leave,” Lachy says. “To even think about sitting in the audience when the curtain opens to see Dana dance again, I’m so happy for her.”
Here, Dana chats with Sunday life on the return to the bar, juggling family life with a Wiggle and their delicious Christmas projects.
How has the expectation of twins impacted your work last year?
Pregnancy is such a transformative time, especially for a ballet dancer. Obviously that takes you away from your normal duties but at Australian Ballet we are lucky to be able to transition to safe duties which I did from 11 weeks pregnant with the girls because I was big enough! I was really sick and tired, and dancing was the only thing that made me less sick, because I wasn’t concentrating on it. But when we found out we were going to have twins, it changed things a lot.
How has having your twin daughters impacted your dancing career?
My life picture changed quite quickly and my son started school this year as well. When I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together – with Lachy on tour obviously, and ballet at this level being all or nothing – after 17 years of my career, I thought: “I think I’ve had a very good race. I’m really lucky to be back after Jasper. Those years were my best dance years.
What did you think of your “final” performance last year?
I felt really happy. A goodbye isn’t always something you get. If you’re retiring with an injury, it’s not a happy time. But I knew I had two little babies to look forward to. Oddly, my last show was the company’s last show before everything shut down [due to the pandemic]. It’s like not much has happened since, but in the meantime everything has changed for me.
How was it to come back?
It’s interesting because coming back from an injury is different from coming back from a pregnancy. From an injury that you are trying to fix something, you may need to revise your technique so that it does not happen again. With the pregnancy, you totally changed, but nothing was really right with you.
It’s different for everyone, but in my experience, you just start somewhere. It was very different from when I came back from Jasper. I had
a role to return to. I was back on stage nine months after him.
How long has it been this time?
The girls were about seven months old when the people around me said, “Why don’t you come in and have a talk?” At this point I couldn’t even have a conversation with anyone, I was so far from being a social person! With twins, people say you don’t leave the house. It sounds extreme but it’s true. Then, with COVID on top, it was such an island bubble at home.
I was really struggling most of the time – it wasn’t like I was pushing the pram and chatting with everyone. I was very distant. I was like, “I know what this job is. It is complete. It’s the days, it’s the nights, it’s the training, it’s the tour. Everyone said, “Don’t start there. Why not just talk about dancing again?
How was this return different?
As someone who trained my whole life and had goals, it was a very different thought process. I wasn’t thinking of a particular season to return or a role.
It was very simple. It was a way to find myself, also a way to give myself time, and space that I couldn’t have. It was a reconstruction of me that was separate from returning to work. It was a way of finding that part of me that needed nurturing.
“Lachy and I both feel incredibly lucky to be doing what we do, to have found our passion so early and to be living that.”
Did you lose a bit of yourself during those first months with the twins?
I think so. It’s not all negative, it’s the nature of the process and I don’t get anything out of it. It was definitely a massive change for our whole family. I was very lucky to have support around me and I know it’s not so easy for all mothers to have this time. For someone who has exercised his whole life, I hadn’t given much thought to how much I needed it for my mental health.
What was the hardest part of your return to work?
Get used to being in a room full of people. When I started again, it was incredibly intimidating. It wasn’t that we didn’t feel at home, but the company has evolved, the energy is different, we have a new artistic director. It wasn’t like putting on warm, fluffy slippers. It was new and I had to find my place, and a lot of that is confidence. The mental path is always the longest; it is the road more difficult than the physical.
How do you and Lachy juggle busy careers and family life?
If people knew all the pieces of the puzzle, especially over the past two years, it’s been tricky. Both of our families are in Brisbane, so we don’t have that local support. Both of our mothers helped out at different times, and my mother was integral, especially when the girls were little [they are now 15 months old]. It’s a lot of planning. I have two very beautiful daughters who help me with the children, especially with my son at school now.
Ballet is grace and elegance, but everyone knows we work really hard underneath. It’s the biggest metaphor for the reality of being a ballet dancer, especially with children. You kick like crazy underneath trying to stay afloat. But Lachy and I both feel incredibly lucky to be doing what we do, to have found our passion so early and to be living that. We are very supportive of each other that way.
How has the pandemic impacted you?
“Silver lining” isn’t a nice term considering what’s been happening in the world over the past two years, but for our little family it was a real blessing that Lachy was able to be there. Not just in terms of support, but he was able to stop and enjoy the girls and our family time, and not be on the road all the time. He missed playing so much, he missed meeting all the kids, but the absolute silver lining was that we were together.
How does next year look for you?
I promised myself not to look too far ahead because watching the tour section was too intimidating. I would never have set foot in a studio! Next year will be different and I say that in a very positive way. I know that I am very lucky to have the support of my mother. We just have to juggle that as best we can.
What are your plans for Christmas?
We hope to be home with our families in Brisbane. For both of us,
it’s our biggest break of the year. It’s a good time to disconnect and relax, especially after the anxieties of the past two years. I hope we will have a little
fresh air and sunshine, and having people around the kids too. Sharing your children with other people is a very beautiful part of parenthood. Being with everyone is the greatest gift.
The Australian Ballet’s Celebration Gala is underway at the Arts Center Melbourne.
Photography by GK Photography. Styling by Abby Bennett. Hair and makeup by Julia Green.