This holiday season, Radio City Rockettes Tara Dunleavy and Nicole Baker fulfill two life-long dreams of theirs: being professional dancers, and moms.
Around the world, the Radio City Rockettes are known as Christmas icons. The famous dance company has been a symbol of the holiday season since 1932—their uniform high kicks and pristine routines making the company one of the best in the world. Between their average 4 shows a day, and high-profile special events such as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tony Awards, and even the Presidential Inauguration, it's hard to believe that these women have time to do anything else besides dance. After sitting down with 12-year veterans of the cast, Nicole Baker, and Tara Dunleavy, I quickly came to discover, that was far from the truth. These world-class dancers are pursuing a nonnegotiable dream of theirs, despite the many demands of their careers—motherhood.
Baker and Dunleavy are two great examples of the average day super-mom. At the prime of their busy season, the two are juggling their long list of motherly duties in Long Island before entering Manhattan as Rockettes. Baker, (the first of the Rockettes in her cast to have children) danced in the shows up until she was 10 weeks pregnant, returning only 3 weeks postpartum, while Dunleavy danced until she was 21 weeks pregnant, returning 5 months postpartum. The two have not only powered through their pregnancies despite the physical demands that come with being a professional dancer but they continue to make their unconventional careers work with the help of a supportive company, a great crew, wonderful families, and what seems to be the biggest staple of all—eachother.
These two bubbly, charismatic moms (who act more like sisters than co-workers) met me in their dressing room backstage to talk balancing family and career in the not so accommodating world of show business. As they sat attentively in their festive performance looks—self-done hair and makeup to the nines—their passion for the cast, their families, and pursuing their dreams were visible as the two fought off light tears of joy. There is no denying that Baker and Dunleavy's feel-good story of success and hard work is an inspiration women everywhere.
Parents.com: Were you both nervous to tell the producers of the show you were expecting?
Nicole Baker: "For any soon to be mom it's nerve-racking to say you are pregnant. Once you say it the world knows. In our business we have to fit in costumes and look our best on stage, so there was a tiny bit of me that was like, if I say it then they might—I don't know if they would look at me differently but when I did tell them they were over-the-moon excited and so supportive. Even when I did come back to the show 3 weeks later everyone thought I was nuts but they were so supportive. They were like, 'Anything you need we are here for you, we are so glad you're back.' It was awesome."
Tara Dunleavy: "I actually performed until I was 21 weeks pregnant. I only did it because this one (Nicole) motivated me, I knew it was possible. Of course, they were over-the-moon, thrilled. I think our company realizes that people look at Rockettes as icons and role models—to know you can do this job, be a mom, perform that long, and stay in shape, it's a good thing and it's healthy, I think that's a great example to portray to young kids. Women that are trying to be performers, you can do everything. It's not like you can't have a life at home and a family and do this job as well."
What drove you to go back to work so soon, and how did you juggle it all?
NB: "Before I got pregnant I knew I wanted to be a performer and a mom, it was what I always wanted to be and I didn't want to miss anything. I just didn't want to miss the show I was so excited. Pregnancy is different for everybody, I was lucky enough to have great pregnancies, easy pregnancies, and I was able to come back right away. I always knew that if I couldn't, whatever was meant to be was meant to be. I just always wanted to be a performer and a mom, and I'm lucky and thankful that it's gone smoothly and positively."
TD: "When I got pregnant, I knew I wasn't done. We love our jobs and we want to be able to do as much as we possibly can so nothing is going to deter us from that even if it's coming back from a pregnancy 5 months or 3 weeks. I think it's a great example for our kids too, that you can do both. You know, I struggled a lot. I knew I was going to come back to work, but I did struggle with the choice—am I making the right decision leaving her so young? Is leaving her with other people good for her? I am not there all the time and everyone told me, this is a great example for your daughter that you can work and be a mom and do all these things. I think especially since Nicole had done it three times, she is a great example. It made me feel like I could make it happen."
How does it feel to have your children in the audience?
NB: "Oh my goodness, I love it. And again mine are getting older...I'm tearing up, I'm so emotional. This year, one of the scenes in the show we both come out in the house, we run down through the house to the stage and go up, and I got my kids seats right there where I am going to be. There was one show that we did and stuff came from the sky—they grabbed it and they were like, 'Mommy, mommy!' waving their hands, and I was right there. It was such a cool moment and people around them were like, 'I think that must be their mom,' pointing to one of us because the three kids were like screaming, 'Mommy, mommy look what I got!' I was like I can't talk to you! But this year they are going to be really close and I am so excited because they know they are going to see my face the entire show."
TD: "Well, Ava (Dunleavy's only child) is so little so she doesn't really know where she is but she came once with my husband and his family and she sat through the entire show, so I thought that was a huge accomplishment! She didn't cry at all! I think with her being so small it's more for me, to have that experience for myself, to like look out in the audience and actually see her sitting there. Like I said before you come and do this job when it's already a dream come true and then to be able to say that your children or child is in the audience, some people might not ever have that experience while working here. It's a rare thing."
Does being a Rockette add a whole other aspect of magic to your family’s holiday celebrations or do you sacrifice that magic for being a part of the production?
TD: "Growing up in New York and my husband as well, we have our entire family here, so that in itself is a special thing. They love saying their wife, or their daughter, or their daughter-in-law is a Rockette and they all come to the show every year. Everyone sees pictures, advertisements, and media around--I definitely don't think it takes away from the magic at all, I think it adds to it. Of course, we do miss some holidays and things like that but because I do live so close I can still really enjoy with my family even if it's for half the day. You know we did the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then we were able to go home and be with our families that day, so I think it just contributes to it and it adds a really great experience for our families. Watching us on the parade and how many people get to look at the TV and go, there is my mom. I mean Ava couldn't do that yet but I will be able to show her the video soon. So I think it definitely it just adds to it."
NB: "My family is from Florida, I have a lot of family in New York as well, so they come up to see the show. I'm Jewish so the Christmas holidays don't really affect us personally at home but we are celebrating Hanukkah this week so my kids are like, you won't be home tonight! I'm just like, we'll do it in the morning so we just make it work. I agree with Tara I don't think it takes away from the magic at all. My kids love going to school, they tell their teachers if I am going to be on TV. Actually, when my oldest was in kindergarten they watched the Today Show while we were on. The teacher put it up on the projection screen for them. I think as they get older they start to understand more. They love it, they're like "Wait, are you doing the one where you are dressed as a reindeer?" They have so many questions, so I think the magic grows now that they are growing and they can see it. My parents and my husband they're thrilled too.
Since you both are two of the only mothers in the show, do you feel like you have an understanding and bond between one another that the other girls may not relate to?
TD: "Absolutely, when I was pregnant, performing and dancing Nicole was the person I was going to with a million questions."
NB: "I loved it."
TD: "Nicole has gone through it three times, and this was a first-time experience for me, and one of the other mothers. Ava's 11-months and her son is 8-months so even that 3 month gap, she has a million questions for me cause we are all going through this for the first time or the third time so you always have the advice to get and to pass on. Who better to ask than someone who has gone through it and is going through this work experience as well so absolutely, it's totally helpful."
NB: "I feel like we can just give each other the eyes and it's like, I know exactly what you mean—mom to mom."
TD: "I mean women have gone through pregnancies but very few people understand what it felt like to perform, wear costumes, dance, and be like oh my gosh I am three months in and I feel nauseous and I'm going to dance in front of 6,000 people. Very few people understand that so there is definitely a bond."
NB: "Or like, I can't eat that much but I have to eat a lot because my costumes get bigger in the night time than in the morning or tighter it's like, there is so much."
What is the hardest part about juggling career and motherhood?
NB: "The hardest part I think right now where my kid's ages are is they are realizing I'm not there as much. On the weekends I can leave at 6 am and not get home until 6 pm. When they get upset I explain to them that there are 365 days in the year and I have around 20 days left of my busy season. So I think just putting it into perspective. Juggling making sure their homework is done, their lunches are packed, I wrote the note if they are going home with somebody else, or if I have help at home and she can't come one day--it's like juggling their schedules I think for me this year that is the hardest. People are always like don't you miss them, I don't want to say no--yes, I miss them, of course, I miss always miss them. Work can be a nice little getaway. I go to dance, I perform and then I run back to them and they are still their loud, calling my name."
TD: "I think for me because Ava is still so little she is hands on all the time. I am gone for 12 hours so I am not even going to see her after waking up so I think because she is not in school and stuff like that, being able to leave and feel ok leaving her in the hands of other people, and me mentally adjusting to that was a huge challenge. I don't think I would have been able to do that if I wasn't coming to a job that I absolutely love. Like Nicole says, of course, we miss our children but because we are coming to a place we love to be at and we love what we are doing it makes the decision so much easier."
What’s the best advice you can give to women in show business who feel ready to have a child?
TD: "Go for it!"
NB: "I was just about to say that exact thing."
TD: "I have been lucky enough to do this job for 12 years, I couldn't even imagine when I started that I would be here for that long, it's literally a dream come true. And the entire time I never knew if I would still be here by the time I had a child. I always knew I wanted to have children and still perform, but you never know if it is going to happen or not so the fact that I got to a place in my life and my marriage when we were like, ok we're ready to do this but I wasn't done performing, it wasn't even really like a this or that kind of decision. It was like how do we just make both work and let's just go for it."
NB: "I say just be positive, stay positive. I had people tell me you're crazy, you can't do it, don't do it. I was like no, I am going to try. I want to do this. I think we have kind of paved ways for other Rockettes who want to have kids and who are trying to have kids and I think it's so special. I feel so cool and honored that we all can do this together. We help each other out and we get to work and we are sad, tired, and cranky, so we all work together and we like lift each other up. So whether you have kids or not I mean this job is exhausting."