It’s 7:58 p.m., and the high-stakes part of Jenifer Ringer’s workday is about to begin. As she hovers in the wings of the David H. Koch Theater in New York City’s Lincoln Center, about to present herself to an audience of thousands, the raven-haired, classically beautiful dancer calms and centers herself in a way most ballerinas can’t. “I picture my daughter, Grace, all curled up asleep in her bed,” she says. “Compared to that, all this doesn’t seem so big. Becoming a mom has definitely changed things for me.”
Opting to have a child has made the 20-year veteran dancer of the renowned New York City Ballet (NYCB) an exception to the ballerina rule. “Few dancers become mothers during their performing years because it’s such an intense, self-focused career,” says NYCB ballet mistress Kathleen Tracy, once a dancer and now a mom. “Having a baby can take you offstage for more than a year. And I know dancers who came back after a pregnancy only to develop a barrage of injuries—back problems, even serious ligament and tendon injuries—that they never experienced before giving birth.” But none of this deterred Jenifer, who knew she wanted to have children. Her husband of ten years, former NYCB principal dancer James Fayette, helped make it happen for both of them in 2005 when he transitioned to a career as a union representative for performing artists. “James was offered a job, and he decided to take it,” Jenifer says. “He was ready to stop dancing, and it gave us more stability to start a family, because transitions out of professional dance can be iffy.”
So as she stands backstage before a performance, Jenifer is grateful for her enduring career as well as the chance to be a mom. “It’s a long day,” she admits. On days like this one, she takes a class at 10:30 a.m., rehearses from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., catches her breath for an hour before heading backstage for costume, hair and makeup, then stars in one full-length or two short ballets.
The past two decades have been both exciting and challenging for Jenifer. Now 37—an age when most of us may only be on the cusp of career success—this critically acclaimed senior principal dancer is several years older than most of the other top ballerinas in the company. And in a job where requirements are perhaps antithetical to the weight gain of pregnancy and the demands of motherhood, she’s one of only three moms among the current crop of nearly 50 NYCB ballerinas.
Success and Struggles
Jenifer wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed of being a ballerina. Quite the opposite: “I tried ballet at age four and five and found it really boring,” she says. But when she was 10, she watched a friend take a class with a teacher who had been a professional ballet dancer and thought it looked "interesting." So she went back to ballet classes. “I found out I love to dance—and I was good at it,” says Jenifer.
When her family moved from South Carolina to Virginia, she got the opportunity to attend the Washington School of Ballet in DC. “My mom drove me into the city and back, more than an hour each way, so I could get to class,” she recalls, adding that her parents were continually supportive of her dancing. Logistical luck hit again when she was a teen: Her father’s employer transferred him to New York City, and Jenifer entered the School of American Ballet, the official school of NYCB. When her parents moved yet again, Jenifer stayed. She attended the school on full scholarship, very quickly became an apprentice with NYCB and was asked to be a company member in 1990 at age 16.
The wide-eyed dancer was thrilled to join the iconic company and was given exciting solo opportunities early on, working with the accomplished choreographer Jerome Robbins and originating principal roles in new ballets. But she was very young—and very unprepared. “I didn’t know how to handle the pressures of this tough career, this adult world,” she says. “My whole sense of self was wrapped up in ballet and in my appearance. If things weren’t going well, my self-esteem would plummet. I would eat to comfort myself, and I gained weight.” Jenifer insists dancers at NYCB are absolutely not asked to be underweight, but they do need to be fit and have athletes’ bodies to meet the demands of strenuous choreography. “I definitely got heavier than that,” she says, admitting that she struggled with bouts of both anorexia and compulsive eating. Although she was promoted to soloist in 1995, she continued to suffer. She put on her game face even as weight gain and injuries plagued and sidelined her. “I eventually got to the point where I couldn’t dance onstage anymore, and that was where I had found my greatest joy,” she says.
In summer 1997 Jenifer left NYCB by mutual agreement, with the assurance that she could always come back. “In my head, I quit ballet completely,” she says. The next four weeks were a total blur as she hid in her apartment, watched TV and ate. Some months later, she ran into a former ballet teacher who told her to come and take a class. “She told me, ‘I don’t care how you look. You need to dance.’ That was the start of my healing process.”
Back to the Barre
Her colleague and friend James Fayette, who was often her dance partner, was also a part of this process. Prior to her leave, he had asked Jenifer to costar in a performance of The Nutcracker with him in upstate New York. Her first reaction was no way. “At the time I was about forty pounds overweight, and I said to him, ‘I’m huge, and you’re not going to want to do this with me.’ And he said, ‘No, I really want to do this with you.’” So she said yes. “It was a miracle that they could find a tutu that fit me!” Jenifer says, laughing. “That was the first time I had been onstage since I quit. I made peace with myself, and I know it’s corny, but I looked in the mirror and said, ‘You know, I’m beautiful.’” It was then, when she accepted herself at the weight she was, that she recaptured her joy in dancing. “James sweetly looked at me with eyes that were not the eyes of the ballet world,” she adds. “He was a real friend to me.”
As Jenifer regained her sense of self—one that was as much about self-love as about her love of dancing—she began to learn how to be a healthier person overall. She started losing weight. As she conquered her eating disorders, she also earned a degree in English at Fordham University (where she had already been enrolled), took odd jobs to support herself and danced a few more gigs with James. A year after leaving NYCB, she approached ballet master in chief Peter Martins and asked if she could return to the company. “They were very generous in letting me come back,” she says.
Forward with Family
Jenifer and James’s relationship evolved into a romantic one. “He claims he had been in love with me for eleven years; I was oblivious to it,” she says. They were married in 2000. Both were eventually promoted to principal dancer at NYCB, and they continued to be cast opposite each other until James left the company. “Overall, I don’t miss dancing,” he says, “but I do genuinely miss dancing with Jenifer, who is the perfect balance of self-sustaining execution and trusting abandon.” He’s especially proud of her as he watches her grow as a working mother. He knows full well the pressures and stress that can accompany being a principal dancer for a major ballet company. But, he says, “Jenifer’s efforts to make her family a priority give her life balance, and having Grace has only enhanced the sense of security and support she enjoys in a professional dance world where anything can happen and often does.”
The birth of their daughter in 2008 meant that Jenifer would take another full year off from dancing—but this leave was filled with happiness. “I loved being pregnant,” Jenifer says. “Many ballerinas dance into their eighth or ninth month. I danced until about the fourth month, and then I just stopped. I was kind of loving being pregnant and not being a dancer at the same time. It was another healing process, because I watched my body get big again, but this time it was for such a beautiful reason.” It took her three months after giving birth to get back to the studio to work out because baby Grace had colic and nobody slept much. Jenifer breastfed for six months and loved that, too. She returned to the stage after a year away. “It was emotionally difficult to resubmit to the confines of the ballet world because I had separated so completely,” she recalls. “But not going back was not an option for financial reasons and because I do love my work.”
Balancing On Pointe and Off
During Jenifer’s nine-month day-and-night NYCB schedule, along with occasional out-of-town gigs during the off-season, life can be hectic. She has Mondays off; James works weekdays. They feel fortunate to have found a babysitter who works a four-day flexible schedule and is available from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. when they need her. “I often don’t get my final work schedule until 7:30 the night before, so I can text her then and say, ‘Tomorrow your schedule is….’ She’s been with us for a year, and it works.” Jenifer and James tag-team the rest of the days and evenings. “James is amazing,” she says. “He’s very much a hands-on dad who races home from work so he can be with Grace.” And the feeling is mutual: James praises Jenifer as a thoughtful, devoted mom who “plans and prepares, anticipating what Grace needs to keep her satisfied and happy.”
Jenifer is never happier than when she can spend time with Grace. They walk from their Manhattan apartment to a nearby park and play. “Grace is a wild child,” Jenifer says with a twinkle. “She loves to pretend and has a big imagination, so our time together is often pretending and acting out whatever book she’s into—lately it’s the Fancy Nancy book series.” Not surprisingly, Grace also loves to dance and is very coordinated, but her parents are wary of encouraging a dance career, knowing how tough it can be. “If she has a passion for it and really wants it, well, then…but we’re not going to push her into it!” Jenifer adds, laughing.
Since becoming parents, she and James haven’t quite figured out how to find couple time, especially because Jenifer often works nights. Occasionally they have a date night on Monday, if one of their parents is in town to be with Grace. Sometimes they’ll meet for lunch or even a movie if they can grab a couple of daytime hours. “We’re pretty low-key,” says Jenifer. “I eat dinner after performances. If he’s still awake when I get home, we see each other, but sometimes he’s asleep.” As for “me time,” Jenifer says it’s simply about reading a book, or even turning on music and cleaning the house. “It sounds a little strange, but the house gets so chaotic that if I actually have a half hour and I can restore some sort of order, I feel better.” Occasionally she sneaks in a guilty pleasure or two, like watching Battlestar Galactica on TV while eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream.
Jenifer is well aware that she’s in the latter stage of her dance career. What’s next? “I’d like to write, which is another really hard career,” she quips. “I’ve written some children’s stories, so if there is a dream, it’s to get those illustrated and published.” Another dream: to have more kids and become a stay-at-home mom— “maybe until they’re in school.”
But for now, Jenifer remains an elegant and incandescent dancer. “I’m always amazed how she maintains her professionalism and ballet technique through each season, especially knowing that she’s had to deal with sleepless nights, illnesses and temper tantrums,” says her friend Kathleen Tracy.
In fact, Jenifer suggests that being a mom has freed up her dancing. “I think of the way Grace looks at the world with such joy and innocence and wonder, and I realize that I’m one of those people that maybe can express that. That I can give the audience a bit of that sense of joy and wonder. In ballet you of course want to be perfect, but I think that that’s not necessarily what gives the audience joy. Grace helps me let go of some of that perfectionism. Now my work is less about achieving perfection and more about what I’m giving.”
Jenifer’s fitness tips
Work on your center. Pilates, which does a lot of work on your core muscles, has been a huge help in getting me back into shape. In fact, any kind of stomach exercises you can do after giving birth, like exhaling and pulling your belly button toward your spine, are so good for you.
Keep stretching. I recommend stretching after your workout. you should always stretch after your muscles are warm and hold until you feel a stretch—but not pain—for 30 seconds. Be sure not to overstretch. Stretching at any time can help keep your body supple and youthful.
Walk off tension. To relieve stress, I like to take walks outside. Walking and just looking at the sky or a body of water immediately helps me feel better.