National Ballet of Canada’s Tanya Howard on Life, Dance and Motherhood

Born in South Africa, Tanya Howard moved to Canada in 1998 to join the National Ballet of Canada. She was quickly noticed for her grace and strength as a dancer, and was awarded the role of First Soloist in 2007 where she shone in classics such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and Giselle.

The talented ballerina is also the mother of two children—a six-year-old girl and a boy just shy of three years old. When she’s not on stage, Howard spends her time with her family, dining at casual restaurants near home in Toronto’s west end, and in winter, making the most of activities like skating—or, watching her children skate, she corrects. “Because I’m from South Africa I don’t especially enjoy the winters,” said Howard laughing. “But my kids do get me out more, so they make the winters more tolerable for me.”

Here, Howard discusses her experience as a dancer and mother and what is up next in her life.

Photo by Carlyle Routh.
Photo by Carlyle Routh.


S/: How did you find the adjustment to Canadian culture? Were there any particular difficulties?

TH: Yeah there were a lot of things that were difficult but I guess I was young enough that everything seemed like an adventure. I don’t remember it being too stressful, except for leaving my family behind. The rest of [the move] was pretty exciting.

As a dancer, your body is your instrument—was it difficult returning to dancing after childbirth?

It was hard because you really don’t know what to expect or how your body is going to respond after taking that much time off and especially after all of the physical changes that happen throughout pregnancy. But I’m not the first person to have kids in our company so I had really great role models. Many of my colleagues returned successfully so there was a great support network here from them.

Do you think that it’s thanks to this great support group at the National Ballet that you and your colleagues have been able to thrive at balancing motherhood and such demanding careers?

I think so. I think that in any line of work, community or family support is huge. It’s a really great thing to see that people are coping and that people are striving with all of the added things [that motherhood brings] to their day-to-day life. So yeah, I think the support of my friends and colleagues was huge.

You’re lucky to have such a supportive environment. That’s amazing.

It really is. It has become a little bit of a norm in our company. It’s easy to overlook how fortunate [we really are].

Do you approach the art of dance differently now that you’re a mother?

I do think about my kids a lot; their experiences and how new life is for them. Sometimes they’ll say something that will give me a new perspective on my stresses or my approach to things. So I do think they’ve been hugely influential on my approach to my work, yeah.

 Do you have any advice to women on balancing their career and motherhood? I think it’s inspiring how you do it so gracefully.

It’s insane. It’s a really crazy time. It’s a lot of planning and organizing. But at work, I really try to be at work. Although it’s hard, you always have your phone with you so you can always text your caregiver and you can always be tied to your life. But when I’m at home, I try and be at home. I try to be with them 100 per cent, and have that feel of that kind of life. When I’m in the studio I try to have the same commitment, but to my career.

As a dancer, what are your health and fitness tips for women?

I try and do a lot of different things, but I try to avoid any particular diets or health fads that are so popular these days. I think you need to be open to trying new things and then doing what’s right for you. It’s also helpful to talk to people in similar situations, so if you can, seek shortcuts and tips from people who are in a similar situation to yours. Try not to have your research and your struggle be exclusive only to yourself. My body responds quite well to yoga, so I enjoy the occasional hot yoga class. I really love it.

If you could have dinner with (or in your case perform with) anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I love comedy. I love sketch comedy. I love the writing behind it, I love the timing of comedy. I love the circumstance of comedy, so I find those people very smart and fast and witty and I enjoy that. I think Tina Fey would probably be a top pick. I think [comedians and actors] are just like us—they’re performers and they have to be fast, especially when doing a live show, which is what we do. If something goes wrong, or if a scenario changes, you’re playing off your partner. There are a lot of similarities to what we do in terms of live performance.

How would you describe your personal style?

I’m fairly relaxed, but I do enjoy dressing up. We have a few events at the ballet that give us the opportunity to dress up a little bit. When I come in to work, I immediately change into my studio wear so I don’t have to focus too much on putting an outfit together, at least, not on a Monday-to-Friday kind of timeline. But it is nice when you have a patron event or an opening night to dress up a bit. But mostly I dress for comfort [laughs]. And I love colour.

Why and when did you choose to go into ballet?

Truthfully, my mom made me do it. I was about four years old, and [my mother] wanted some time for herself, so she made me go to ballet. It was something I was naturally drawn to, I think, once I figured out what it was. It’s something that really feels natural to my body and I think it’s extremely beautiful to watch and to do. It’s extremely, extremely, beautiful to me.

Do you have a memory of an early performance that you’d be able to share?

Really early, I think, would be the first time I did a solo. I had been rehearsing, and usually when you rehearse it’s very communal and we’re all involved in putting a production together. I remember being on stage and it was a moment when everyone else was sitting around and the time had come for my solo. I think that was a fairly significant turning point for me. It made me feel like I could really be in control of the outcome. It was a show of Coppélia, many years ago.

Is it difficult to preserve the choreography of a classic ballet that has been performed for so long by so many different dancers, while also trying to make it new and fresh?

I don’t think everything needs to be made new. We’re actually doing a production in June (playing June 10-20, 2015) called The Sleeping Beauty. That, I think, is a bit of a controversial ballet for us, because it is so old and it is such a huge part of our history and I’m sure there’s been a ton of talk of whether or not we should rework it. I just feel like that is one ballet that needs to stay the way it is. To me, when I dance that ballet, it feels like I’m in a museum. You know, when you do go to a museum or an art gallery, it feels very special. It feels like these things were preserved in their moment for a reason and you can appreciate them for that. I really feel like we get to do such a range of repertoire in our company, and while I appreciate that we do get to do very modern things, and perform current works that are relevant to today, I love that, on the other side, we also get to preserve the classics and that we get to do them the way they were choreographed years ago. If you look at it in the sense of the appreciation of going to a museum it’s just as relevant in today’s day too.

What do you feel makes you unique as a dancer? What are your strengths?

 I like to think that I am versatile in both the contemporary and the classical works, so I think that’s one of my strengths. This time when we present Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I play the role of Alice; last time I played the role of the Red Queen. I think these are probably the two most extreme opposite characters, so I think my versatility will be a strength.

Is there a dancer or choreographer that you admire?

You know, my colleagues are pretty incredible people. I know it sounds cheesy that I would say that, but I feel like we’re a very good group and it’s really tricky to be working with, and friends with, your biggest competitors. For whatever reason, however we’ve managed to do it, we have really worked together in a very supportive way, and I don’t know if that’s a Canadian thing, but I really admire that about my colleagues.

Tell me about the collaborative process between dancer and choreographer, in your experience.

 We’re pretty fortunate in this company that we get a lot of different choreographers. We spent a long time with a choreographer named James Kudelka, who was our artistic director before, so that was a nice treat to have the choreographer in-house. Different choreographers bring in different styles; someone might see the entire work in their head and they come to you and literally tell you: “On this count, I need you to be in this corner, facing back.” And then there are others who are far more collaborative and far more open to seeing where the choreography could go with [a dancer’s] interpretation. They’ll let [the dancer’s] movement give him other ideas, so that’s part of what is so cool about it. No two experiences will be the same.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Earlier, I told you my age and that I have two kids, so it’s hard… You know, my husband and I talk about this a lot, and I feel like it’s hard with kids… We’re better at answering the “where do you see yourself in fifteen years,” question, but five years is going to go by so fast. I really hope I’ll still be doing what I’m doing and contributing to the National Ballet.

We hope so too!