Triinu Leppik Upkin. A wife, a mother, the head of the ballet union in Estonia, and a full-time ballerina. Some might say she has her plate full, but this amazing woman is daily living out what many deem as an impossible and very unorthodox life for a ballerina.
I have had many people ask me if having a family, specifically if being a mom, is possible as a dancer. In theory I know it is, but I wanted to talk to someone who has and is living out both roles simultaneously.
Triinu, though born in Tallinn, Estonia, spent most of her childhood in Tartu with her parents and two younger brothers. Triinu lead a very active lifestyle growing up. She went to a regular school, then attended a private ballet school, and a music school as well leaving only one day of her week free. Fast forward to the age of 18, Triinu graduated from all three schools, but wanting to get a ballet diploma she decided to do one extra year at the Estonian National Ballet School. And from there she immediately joined the company. That was 15 years ago. So much has happened since then. One thing is her collaboration with the Ballet Union. This began in her early years as a dancer.
“Joining the union wasn’t a question for me, I was like, of course, I have to join. I felt like everybody was a part of it. Then they had one of their annual meetings. So I went, it was a Monday of course, with a hangover, and I just sat in the back back back of the room. But when it came time to choose a board member one lady suggest, ‘Oh! But Triinu is very smart! We should put her on the board!’ And so I was elected to the board.”
As funny as the story is, it wasn’t a complete surprise to Triinu.
“I always knew I’d be on the board. People seem to like me as a leader. It comes naturally, I don’t force myself into positions.”
For nine years Triinu remained a regular member of the board until taking on the role as the head of the board.
In the meantime, a certain man by the name of Sergei Upkin very unexpectedly stepped into her life, and by unexpectedly I mean, unexpectedly.
“Sergei was actually working in Berlin when I joined the company, but he came back in the January of my first year because he wasn’t very happy in Berlin. So, we never actually talked, then one unfamiliar number called me, and he said, ‘Hello! I am Sergei Upkin, would you like to come to dinner with me? Like right away, where do you live, I’m already driving.’ I was just like, uh, what? Who? Sergei Upkin? Because, well, he was famous. I remember him from school.
So I then went.
We talked that night very casually and very specifically about our life perspectives and expectations, like, do you want a family? The questions were specific but comfortable and genuine. I remember I kept a diary, and I wrote that day, ‘oh, I really liked him, but I hope he doesn’t want anything more from me.’ Because I had these experiences with the men that I liked that when we start something, it’s nice, but it wears off quickly, and I didn’t want to ruin this. But he was very determined.”
Six years later Triinu and Sergei eloped to Italy and got married!
“The push to get married was the idea that we wanted kids, and if we want kids then we want to be a real family, and have the same name. For me, it’s quite important that I have the same name as my children.”
To many, the idea of pausing your career to have kids is a scary thought, but Triinu said she wasn’t scared, at least not after joining the company.
“When I was in school, at 15, and I had to start thinking what direction I wanted to go; art (her school specialized in art), violin, or ballet, and I also wanted to be an actress. But anyways I had to decide. But when I thought about ballet, I literally spent nights weeping because I thought, well I would like to be a ballerina, but I would like also to have kids!”
Like most people, Triinu had only known famous dancers who gave their whole life to ballet and never had kids. But thankfully, when she joined the company she was offered a very different perspective.
“When I joined the company, I was like, wow, so many have children and they are dancing! It was so relieving! It’s not a problem at all anymore. Our teachers were, you know, very old school and they didn’t have children, or they had one very late, but they gave us the idea that you have to sacrifice everything, but no you don’t. So when we wanted to have kids, I wasn’t scared.”
For Triinu, having kids didn’t come so easily, and they had to wait much longer than expected. But finally it happened! And actually, it happened twice! Back to back. I had the privilege of having Triinu in my dressing room after her first child, but it was very short-lived because before I knew it, she was back on maternity leave!
“I was really motivated to come back (after the first child). I pushed myself from the day I came back to work. I wanted to be ready for the swan lake that was coming up. I wanted to be ready for anything, “big swans”, you name it, I’ll go in! But a few weeks before I was officially back, I learned that I was pregnant! When I saw those two stripes again, then I cried.
So, I had to go tell my boss, Thomas Edur, but I told Sergei, ‘no, you’re going to come with me and you’re going to tell him and you’re going to talk.’ I didn’t feel ashamed, but it was a pity for me because I felt like really, I can jump I can do everything again! And now I already I have to take it easy.”
The emotional and mental toll of getting in and out of shape is very real for dancers. For Triinu it was no different.
“Oh, it’s awful. Both times it was very hard. It took me two months, both times to feel ok doing class. I cannot explain it. If you haven’t felt it before, it’s hard to explain. Nothing goes anywhere, the back and the spine, you can’t lift to arabesque. Even forty-five degrees is challenging. Gradually it comes, but mentally it’s so hard.”
Not long before this interview, I was talking with a friend about how ballet is so all-encompassing and can wear you out physically, emotionally, and mentally. I say this as a young single person, so I was so intrigued to hear how exactly Triinu balances all of this. Her answer surprised me.
“But this is the thing that changes. I’ve been there too, when I was alone, I felt like it takes everything. But then when you have kids, they are so small and so dependent on you, you don’t really have a choice. What I feel now is that, after having kids, and being back here, I am resting when I’m at work, because I am alone. I only have to take care of myself, my body, my schedule; come on, it’s so easy! I am generally very calm, but having two kids with an age gap of two years and three months, it can be so overwhelming how much chaos they can make, and it’s every day.”
On a practical level, Triinu and Sergei have family members that help out on busy days, but also, it is not uncommon to see the cute little faces of their children hanging out backstage or in class.
“Most mornings we wake up around seven, we eat, we wash ourselves, we get dressed, play a little, then we drop them off at their daycares at half-past nine. Then we come to the theater and we still have time to warm up. The problem days are Saturday and Sunday because the daycares don’t work and being married to a dancer means we are both at work. But, I just want to interject, that though it can be complicated in terms of schedules, I wouldn’t want that my husband doesn’t understand my life, but for some, they enjoy being married to “normal” people, but I cannot imagine it.
Anyways, fortunately, my father comes from Tartu on many weekends, to help with the kids. It is hard that we don’t have anyone in Tallinn that we can call for emergencies, like if the kids wake up sick and can’t go to daycare. We do also use paid help sometimes. Overall you get very good at planning your time!”
But managing time isn’t new to Triinu, as a child, she kept a very busy schedule, but also even when she joined the company she finished both her bachelor’s degree and master’s degrees in cultural studies all while dancing. This took a lot of creativity and she says it was good practice for time management.
“If I was sitting in rehearsal, then I would have all my books and my computer with me and would study quietly in the Pilates room above the studio. And now it’s the same with the kids or ballet union, I do all my “office work” up there. Or I use my breaks to attend meetings via zoom. But I do feel like it comes naturally, when you are in the situation, you figure it out.”
All of the crazy schedules and planning aside, Triinu finds that having kids has somehow benefited her dancing.
“It changes your perspective. I’ve grown to love the stage life more as I’ve been away from it for a while. I feel more excited, and in a way scared, but at the same time the perspective life has given me now, has created a sense of freedom. It’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong at work or on stage, though ballet is very precious to me. I feel like having a life outside of ballet somehow creates the space to enjoy the theater life more.”
Talking to Triinu was so encouraging, and watching her from a distance live out her crazy, yet beautiful life is also very admirable. To every ballerina mama, you’re doing a great job! And to those who want kids but are hesitant or scared because of the potential challenges they may face, Triinu says,
“No one is ever ready. And there is never “perfect” timing. Just go for it!”