My meeting with Melanie Hamrick is set for the terrace of a midtown hotel perched 16 floors above Broadway. Wouldn't it be funny, I think, if she just pirouettes up in here? She is, after all, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, one of the most storied and well-known companies in the world. She could nail all variation of dramatic entrance. But when she walks in, I'm surprised to find that everything about her is understated: Hamrick's long chocolate hair is styled in soft waves and she's wearing crisp, grey pants and a sensible floral shirt she's been photographed in on other occasions.
But her grace is unmistakable as she takes a seat next to me, settling in to unpack the life of a mid-career ballerina. "I never took a day off," says the doe-eyed 30-year-old. "I've been training since I was five." But recently, she's been grappling with a seven-month hiatus—an unnatural break for someone who's spent more days than not rehearsing from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then taking the stage for an evening performance. But the reason for the time away is a more mysterious frontier: new motherhood. Hamrick is the proud mom of six-month-old Devereaux Octavian Basil Jagger.
Yes, Jagger. We'll get to that, but it's far from the crux of Hamrick's story. When you're soaking bloody blisters, nursing torn ligaments, dancing on a fractured heel bone, or, I don't know, giving birth, your partner's profession kind of recedes into the background. Our culture may still fixate on the success women's partners enjoy (the obsession more intense, perhaps, if said career involves being the second-most influential figure in Rock 'n' Roll), but Melanie Hamrick doesn't.
The pregnancy caught her off-guard. "A lot of dancers miss their period. You are working insane, intense amounts, so it's not necessarily a red flag," she explains. "I was like, 'Okay, I'm tired, I need to eat better, get more sleep.' And then after a couple of weeks, I was like, 'Wait when was the last time…?'" So she took a pregnancy test. "I was like, 'How did that happen?' I wasn't planning on that. I was doing eight shows a week. I was just like, 'I have to get on stage! I don't have time for this right now.'"
Hamrick says she never really put much thought into having children. Her older sister Rachel was pregnant at the time, and her brother and his wife have since had a baby—all boys under the age of one—but there weren't cousins growing up or other babies to speak of. "I never held children. Everyone laughed at me if I did. Now, all of a sudden, there are babies everywhere! " Before last spring, with a dog as her only charge, she lived "a really simple life."
"You don't become a ballet dancer thinking about having children," Hamrick says, "because it's so hard. It's rare."
Jagger meanwhile has seven children from previous relationships, the oldest of which is 46, the youngest 18. He and Hamrick had been seeing each other for about two years when Hamrick realized she was pregnant, but the couple's start was tabloid fodder: They reportedly met backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in Tokyo in March 2014. Jagger's longtime love L'Wren Scott committed suicide barely two weeks later. Hamrick had only just called off her engagement to fellow dancer Jose Manuel Carreño. A few months later, Jagger and Hamrick coupled up. She introduced him to her family; they were spotted in Switzerland and out and about in NYC.
Hamrick prefers to keep Jagger out of the conversation, though, except for phantom mentions. Running down her Pandora stations—Jimmy Buffet, Drake, lots of classical—she lists an artist that she's particularly enamored with, French-born Latin musician Manu Chao. How did you discover him, I ask. "From my boyfriend," she goofily deadpans. When she scrolls through cute pictures of Dev on her iPhone, I catch a glimpse of Mick's famously cavernous mug, lips spread wide in a smile as he holds up his son who has an almost identical but nascent maw.
"I think my sister was like 'Oh, that'd be so much fun!'" Hamrick remembers of her family's response to the news that they'd have another baby in the brood. "But then they all gave me space. No one told me any opinion. They all were just, 'We are here, whatever you need to talk about, whatever you need to do. We are going to back you up.'" She says she needed time to digest, figure out what it all meant. And once it sunk in, the anticipation started. She kept dancing, hoping to make it through the end of her season. But her "pretty conservative" doctor encouraged her to dial back the intensity and she stopped performing last summer, just short of the season's end. Not long after, the tabloids snapped her barely recognizable bump. One fellow dancer texted her and said, "Don't worry, I told everybody it wasn't true and tabloids are gross and annoying." She laughs as she recalls it.
But it was true, and the dance hiatus began. "It was really difficult," Hamrick admits. "I mean, I wouldn't want to do anything else. This"—she means motherhood—"is number one but…when I was pregnant, everyone was like, 'Oh my god, aren't you going to love doing nothing?!' Everyone was like, 'Just watch TV, Mel!' It kind of drove me nuts."
She took a vacation with her family to the beach. She decorated her Upper West Side apartment ("It was nice to nest"). Instead of maternity gear, she shopped for large blouses from Rag & Bone and leggings from The Row to accommodate the growing swell. Her sister made her a pair of maternity jeans. And besides getting "mooooody," everything went like clockwork.
Hamrick has been perfecting her craft as a member of ABT's corps de ballet since the early aughts. A 2005 New York Times spotlight on corps standouts marveled, "It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Melanie Hamrick...emerged from such a potent group to become an individual." Corps members are often cast as the yeoman of ballet: "When people find out I'm a corps member," Hamrick explains, "I'll get these looks, like, 'Oh, well, that's okay. You could still make principal.' It's like they are suggesting my career is shabby. My career is not shabby."
Born and raised in Virginia, Hamrick "tried everything—swimming, gymnastics, piano...but there was always ballet," she says, drawing a breath. "Ballet, ballet." Perhaps it's genetic: "It didn't hurt that my sister was a dancer," she says with a laugh. (Her sister Rachel worked in Hungary, Amsterdam, and Korea, where they treat ballerinas "like rockstars.") At age 11, Hamrick started at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. "There were about 30 kids. And it's all Russian teachers. You wake up at 7, do a couple school classes, go to ballet from 9:30 'til 1, have lunch, do some more school classes then have another ballet class."
And so it went for the next five years until she moved to New York City to join ABT's Studio Company. "I was a senior in high school and I moved in with four other girls. I can't believe my parents let me do that," Hamrick admits. "No one looked after us." But it wasn't difficult for her, exercising the discipline she'd gained from dance. No drunken screaming matches with roommates or wanton drug use. She refuses to answer the question "have you ever smoked pot?" with feigned indignation, which makes me pause. Is it possible Mick Jagger's baby mama has never smoked pot?
We take a few moments to consider the term "baby momma"—its cultural import and the economic assumptions implied. She noticed when the press started using the term; thought it was curious. "I definitely don't think of myself as a 'baby mama,'" she says. "Yes, in the technical sense, I'm not married to the father of my child. But I am in a great, wonderful relationship with him. So I don't see myself like that." I mention the lyrics of Kanye West's "Golddigger." She doesn't know the song and says that she's not familiar with his music, but loves his sneakers—she's annoyed because she can't find Yeezys anywhere. "I have a career. I work hard. Since I was 18, I've supported myself. I've put my whole life into my work. I dance with one of the most well-known ballet companies in the world. To be put in that category is a little insulting. And," she widens her eyes, head cocked in a defensive stance, "it's insulting to my boyfriend."
I hadn't planned to go back to work until September," Hamrick says as she readjusts her shirt on her shoulders. "I didn't know how my body was going to feel, how I was going to recover. And thankfully, it's been okay. My boss called me in February and was like, 'We need you.'" So she headed back, dancing the flower girl in this spring's ABT production of Don Quixote at the Met.
Plus, she couldn't wait to get moving again. The doctor told her she wasn't allowed to start exercising until six weeks after she gave birth, but after about three weeks, the itch was too much not to scratch. She wanted the feeling of being in the studio again, so she slipped into a beginner's class at Steps on Broadway and tried a slow, careful tendu. "It was awful. There were people who had never danced and I was struggling and the teacher was like, 'Are you okay, sweetie?' because I had tears in my eyes from the pain but also the happiness of feeling the music and my body. But I was really struggling to keep up. I was like, 'I'm never going to get back on stage.' I cried all the way home."
She started working out with her trainer at six weeks on the dot. The baby cushion melted away in a month but she's still not at what she calls her "performance weight." "My numbers aren't there yet," she says with a grimace. "My trainer was like, 'Stop thinking about those numbers.' He doesn't believe in scales but I think every ballet dancer goes off of weight. They weigh you in school like every other week."
Pre-baby, she tried to eat well—snacking throughout the day on peanut butter and toast or small portions of pasta and veggies—but, honestly, there were times when she'd snag a bag of chips and that was lunch. "I definitely struggled in my teenage years with weight and even a couple of times in my career at ABT because when you're working really hard and the weight is coming off and they are rewarding you…" she trails off and restarts. "You're feeling thin, therefore you are dancing better because in a ballerina's mind you are like, 'I want to be thin, I want to be thin.' You get more roles. It's a cycle. I did go through a phase where they said to me, 'Hey, we aren't going to lie, you are too thin.' Eventually it will affect your shows. You need to be able to be athletic."
But Hamrick doesn't want to feel like she's fighting with her own body. And now that she has the baby, she's refocused on nutrition. "I want to give him the best, so therefore I want to take care of myself better," she says. She's rejiggering her ideas about her body and how it works best. "I would never have thought I would feel this great at this weight. Now, I am like, 'I had a baby and I feel really great and I look hot.' I am more proud of my body." It's reassuring that her director told her he sees a lot of dancers who come back dancing better than ever after they have babies because they're more confident.
Like most new moms returning from maternity leave, she's not without her career anxieties. "You worry about 'Are they are going to treat me differently? Are they going to put me in the mom's role?' When you're a principal, you come back and you still do your principal role; you play the 16-year-old Juliet, no problem. But sometimes when a corps de ballet woman comes back, they do try to give her a nurse or a queen roll. A lot of the women that have had babies, they're happy taking a step back," says Hamrick, who has no plans to step anywhere but forward. "I want to be doing my solo work. I want to get that new part."
In the meantime, she's made the most of her time with Dev. He started sleeping through the night at three months, was a gem on his first flight, loves his cousins, and listens to Mozart every morning. And, yes, he perks up whenever she plays the Rolling Stones. She doesn't think Dev will be negatively impacted at all by her going back to work—Hamrick says Dev's generally a laid back guy, just like his dad. And dancing helps her be a better mom. "I can give him better care because I'm happy and I feel good." She knows she's lucky to have both: work and motherhood. "I still think I'm at the height of my career."
Opening photo by Rachel Hamrick