Girl Friday: Keesha Beckford
Photography by: Woodnote Photography
Accomplished dancer Keesha Beckford has shared her physical artistry with the world since she was a young girl. Now, she’s mastering her skills of improvisation while tackling the biggest role of her career: Motherhood. An inspiration to artists of all mediums, Keesha shares her insightful musings on motherhood and more on her widely-adored blog, Mom’s New Stage.
Tell us a little about your life’s journey.
Well… I was born in a log cabin and now am the mistress of a château in the Loire Valley. I’m just kidding, no log cabin! Seriously, I was born in Queens, New York. My mom was a teacher and my dad a phlebotomist (blood analyst). They divorced when I was three. I always wanted to dance, which I have never stopped doing. I danced throughout my school years and at Princeton University, which always had a dance program, but one much [more] competitive than what is in place now. As a dancer I have worn many hats, as student, performer, teacher and choreographer. I have lived in New York City – in Kew Garden Hills, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn Heights; as well as in Charlotte, North Carolina, and currently in Chicago.
When did you start dancing? Were you encouraged by someone else, or was it your own desire?
My mom and I used to put on shows in our living room. She would put on the soundtrack of a Broadway album, and call out, “This is your cue!” I’d dance on out of the ‘wings.’
Once I started dancing, I never wanted to stop.
I could improvise for hours! Also, I couldn’t sit still, and apparently had boundless energy that my mom thought could be channeled in a dance class. I first started at 2.5, in the 70s when Mommy-and-me classes weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. The daughter of a colleague of my mother owned a studio and she took me in with the 5 year olds. The story is that I kept up, even though at the recital I got stuck in the curtain!
I was also involved in local theater. I remember performing regularly. I loved it. The director advised my mother to get me an agent, but this was the 70s, long before Toddlers and Tiaras, when everyone thought their kid was the next Shirley Temple or Sammy Davis, Jr. And as a single mom, taking me all over hell and creation for auditions wasn’t going to happen.
What was your training like, growing up? What was a typical day like for you?
I went to a neighborhood studio in Flushing, called Studio E. Academics were important and I went to dance class every day after school. I was one of those kids who was completely angsty and overextended in high school. I was an A student and worked on the yearbook, serving as editor my junior and senior years. That meant I worked on the yearbook for a few hours after school, went do take a class or two, and then came home to do my homework. With tests or papers upon me, I often went to bed at midnight or later. Not much has changed!
Once I was old enough, I began taking classes on the weekends, school holidays and summers in Manhattan, taking the subway from Queens to the famed Steps Studio on 74th and Broadway, or to the Ailey School when it was down in the 40s on Broadway. When I was 14 I began studying at Steps on scholarship, something I did every summer until I graduated from college. I took 2-4 classes/day, usually ballet and jazz.
Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to dance professionally?
I always wanted to dance professionally! My parents loved dance and we went to see performances often! I don’t know a moment when I didn’t want to, even when I was a little kid. There was nothing else.
Tell us about a pivotal point or influential experience in your performing career.
My first job out of college was a rock musical in Germany called Tabaluga und Lilli.
Many of my cast mates wound up with national tour and Broadway gigs under their belts, and while the cash is something I would have liked, I knew that concert dance was the world in which I felt more at home.
It was a German tour, we were treated like royalty, with a driver and our own hotel rooms. I was making great money for a 21 year old, and foolishly I spent most of it on clothes. I loved the cash and being in a big deal show, but I knew that I wasn’t making art. After that I decided I wanted to do concert work, to do work that had meaning for me. Many of my cast mates wound up with national tour and Broadway gigs under their belts, and while the cash is something I would have liked, I knew that concert dance was the world in which I felt more at home.
What was it like making the decision to give up your professional dance career?
Once I became a mother, I told myself that I didn’t want to live with that “God, I have to get to class, and Pilates, and the gym so I can do justice to someone’s work while wearing some tiny little costume” kind of pressure on myself. So in that way it was a conscious choice.
But still, even though I don’t take class regularly, and I am not in the physical shape I once was, if an audition comes up that I think I am right for I will definitely go! Last year I went to two big auditions, and got all the way to the end both times.
My role as a mother in dance is continually evolving
It was heartbreaking not to book the gigs, but I did feel pretty validated as an out-of-shape 39 year old dancer/mother of two.
My role as a mother in dance is continually evolving. I miss performing, I miss being involved in the choreographic process, and there is part of me that would love to get back on stage. In that way, I’ll let you know when I officially give up!
What has been the most challenging part of being a mother to two children so close in age? The most gratifying?
The most challenging thing is some days, resisting the urge crawl under my dining room table with a Xanax and a bottle of Wild Turkey. Honestly, what is so challenging about being a parent,
The most challenging thing is some days, resisting the urge crawl under my dining room table with a Xanax and a bottle of Wild Turkey.
something you know intellectually before your children are born, but can’t fully grasp until you’re in it, is the fact that every waking moment is about them. Feeding them, getting them dressed, keeping them safe, clean and well-rested. Making sure they are having fun – although that’s why I schedule tons of playdates with mommies I like, so I can have fun too! Making sure they are learning and intellectually and artistically stimulated. Meeting their needs so they can grow into dynamic, self-sufficient people is constant and obsessive.
Oh and did I mention the fighting? I’m an only child, and I somehow never understood that siblings did so much quarreling! I thought it was having a 24-7 playmate. Boy was I wrong!
It is so easy to lose yourself – your interests, your relationships, your looks — in the process. And, unfortunately, there is a message we are getting in our culture that says we have do it all — give 100% to our kids, be killer at some pursuit and make Halle Berry look like a creature from The Hobbit. This puts an absurd amount of pressure on moms. The most gratifying part – besides them going to bed before 8:30, which almost never happens, is seeing my kids make insightful observations about the people around them and the world in general. I love seeing them make good choices. I love seeing them demonstrate exuberant love for each other, and our friends and family. They are so little and everything is so pure. When they express appreciation and happiness it’s the genuine article, the essence of what they’re feeling at that moment. The biggest challenge is remembering to stop and enjoy them; to do things with them, instead of for them.
Will you encourage your children to dance? Why or why not?
Definitely! They don’t have much choice to at least take some classes. I would NEVER push them to stay in it if they didn’t love it, however. Dance is an amazing balance of the athletic, the artistic and the intellectual. It’s such a terrific way to give small children a sense of rhythm, coordination and an ability to follow instructions. And it’s so much fun!
Mr. R is taking dance already. He is at Hubbard Street, a program that is more creative movement than ballet based. He really loves it, even though he is the only boy in his class. We’ll see if he continues, once we start T-ball in the spring. Lady A has taken some mommy-and-me classes, and can’t wait to take her own class in the spring. She is, (read-between-the-lines), more spirited than her brother, so hopefully she won’t be rolling on the floor and hanging on the barres to the great mortification of her dancer mom when she’s in her own class.
They both have great bodies for dance so far, long lean muscles, although, they lost out on their dad’s banana feet and got mine which are pretty flat. Yes, I’m crazy. To be honest I would almost encourage Mr. R, more than Lady A. There are fewer men in dance, and by virtue of that it male dancers have more choice, which translates into more power. A good male dancer has tons of options, while many excellent women remained underutilized.
How do you feel about the dance reality shows on television? Do you watch them? Which ones? Or if not, why not?
Since I became a mom, and then a mom blogger, my TV-watching is way down. The only things I don’t miss when they’re on are Hell on Wheels, Mad Men and Downton Abbey. I don’t watch any dance reality shows. I don’t want to name names, but some I find downright offensive — showing mothers, studios and the art form in the cheapest light for the sake of ratings. They make me both a combination of sick to my stomach and violently angry. Tell me how you really feel, I know.
But I’m dead serious.
I used to watch Dancing With the Stars. Since I wasn’t a ballroom dancer, I felt it was relatable without being something I knew too well. Something with a sense of mystery and awe left. As for SYTTYD, I tried to get on board and couldn’t. When I watched, I was in awe of many of the dancers’ technical feats, but I don’t like the idea of dance being a sport , all about tricks. I love personal heroism, flashy moves and pyrotechnics, just as much as the next person, but I need more subtlety and the value of simplicity. I need more art and less commercialism.
And then there’s the fact that when I watch a lot of these shows, I feel approximately 107 in dance years. The old horse who needs to be put out to pasture.
How do you find time to fulfill the artist inside you? What kind of changes have you had to make in your daily life now that you’re a full-time mom of two?
The artist in me comes out when I teach. I actually teach part-time, six classes per week, at a college in downtown Chicago. Every now and then I decide to do the combination or exercise instead of fixing or giving corrections. I sometimes feel bad to take my own class because I should be focusing on the students. I used to think this was a teacher showing off, and perhaps it is. But as a teacher, I should dance. The movement that is organic to me , and I hope I give students some new insights by watching me.
What prompted you to begin your blog?
Hubris. I’ve always loved to write. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts, and thought “I can write as well as this! I wanted to be a modern-dance David Sedaris.
I had written a manuscript for a semi-autobiographical novel about a dance teacher. It was picked up by an agent, but never bought. There was someone at one of the major houses who was interested. She suggested revisions, which I made, and then she vanished like something in a Harry Potter volume. Everything fell apart after that. But I still wanted to write, and thought that blogging might give me a chance to feel things out, develop some ideas and serve as a springboard into being published. Also, writing is something I can do anytime. Which means I can do it alone at 1 a.m. and feel completely in the zone. Giving yourself class alone at your house at 1 a.m.? How bizarre, how bizarre…
My blog is a way for me to do some-soul searching and offer both commiseration as well as entertainment to others. It’s my little Internet soapbox. And since so many moms look at other moms and wonder, “How the &#$% does she do all that?” my blog, Mom’s New Stage shows both the simplicity and complexity of the answer.
What do you consider to be your hardest won or most treasured life lesson?
In the words of Stewart Smalley, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” I am working on this every day. Not to compare and despair. There will always be someone who has more money, nicer clothes, a nicer home, has worked with more celebrated choreographers, is prettier, has a smaller ass, more traffic on her blog, the list goes on. But trying to realize that I can keep striving, while being proud of my own accomplishments is the lesson I wish I could internalize instantly. And never let it go.
What advice do you have for younger women who may be pursing dance careers as well as families?
Once you do have children, they will become the ultimate filter by necessity. They make you stay true to who you are. If you have to socialize and party, you’ll make it happen. If you want to make Martha Stewart look like something from Hoarders, you’ll make it happen. And if being a creative soul is what you must do, you will find a way. Because that’s who you are.
There are creative solutions to finding quality childcare– nanny shares and in-home day cares are options worth exploring. If you’ve been a dancer you are nothing if not determined. You are used to adversity and to challenges. Sometimes, it is almost easier to forget yourself. It becomes a destructive inertia. Remember that you deserve time for yourself. It makes you a better mother. Realize however, that while you may think you are failing on all fronts, your peers are looking at you in awe, as you dance your way seamlessly through the facets of your life.
Do you have any regrets?
Sigh. The road not traveled. There should be a Sliding Doors app for i-Pad, don’t you think? Remember that movie with Gwyneth Paltrow? Just no one dies.
I don’t like the idea of regrets, because so many things would result in me not having married my wonderful husband and not having my beautiful children. But I do wonder what would have happened had I gone to a college with a great dance program, instead of a school where dance although present, was somewhat marginalized. I wonder what would have happened if I had lived in France at some point in my 20s. I speak pretty good conversational French, but I know my French would be badass if I’d have lived there. And although I wouldn’t trade having been an artist for anything, I sometimes feel that in not having been more successful financially, my children’s options for things such as travel and school are limited.
How do you see your future?
I see my future as continuing to be creative, which means a juggling act of jobs. I will always continue to dance and teach, because dance is who I am. I also see more opportunities for myself as a writer. All things I can mold around meeting the needs of my family.
Girl Friday is a phrase more common to the 1940s and 50s, defined as “a female employee who has a wide range of duties,” and is most recognizable from the film His Girl Friday. Here at Move LifeStyle, we’re resurrecting its saucy vibe for the title of our last column of the week which profiles inspiring women in the workforce. If you like this series, click here for more Girl Friday Interviews.