Felicia Palanca has danced her way around the world. She was a senior artist at the Australian Ballet and then a Principle with the Munich Ballet...
“I saw myself as a ballerina first and foremost before I had children. It took me at least five years after I stopped dancing to not describe that as my occupation. Ballet and dancing becomes your identity. It also ignited my passion for designing dancewear and dance shoes,” says the elegant Melbourne-based mother of two. Ballet certainly inspired her next step: the launch of FLO Dancewear – an adorable children’s dance label which features pieces perfect for ballet class or for play – and two years ago the addition of FLO Active – cool activewear for tweens. “I wanted motherhood to be my main focus, but I also wanted to use what I had learned from designing and my years of dancing experience. That is when FLO dancewear was born eight years ago,” she recalls. We caught up with the beautiful Palanca to find out more about her inspiring career as a ballet dancer, how motherhood has changed her life and launching her businesses.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Loyal, creative, motivated.
What has motherhood taught you?
So far motherhood has taught me patience and the meaning of true love. My children have shown me what true love is – the type of unselfish love that you feel for your children where you would do anything and everything for them.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
To enjoy every moment of my ballet career! I would be hard on myself even though I had such an amazing time in the Australian Ballet. I felt at the time like I savoured every moment, but now looking back I guess I should have savoured it more. I can’t say I didn’t go for it because I pushed myself as hard as I could and loved every moment of it, but I guess if I could have given my younger self advice, that would be it. One thing I didn’t do and wish I had done was dance overseas earlier in my career. After 10 years with the Australian Ballet I decided to leave and dance as a Principle with the Munich Ballet. By then I felt like I had done everything I had wanted to do with the Australian Ballet, having danced so many amazing roles with wonderful dancers, and was ready for a new chapter of being a wife, mum and designer. So in hindsight, I would have liked to have headed overseas half way through my career and then come back to finish off my career here in the Australian Ballet. Otherwise I felt I did do everything I had dreamt of with my dancing career.
So far, what has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?
I guess balance has been the biggest challenge. Making sure I meet both of their needs as their mum as well as a work life balance for me is a constant balancing act. It’s a challenge to keep everything organised at home at the same time as running my business. I also find it hard to find the time for enough sleep and to fit in exercise and see my friends. Exercise is really important to me as it is something I have always done. I try and exercise for just even 30 minutes most days. It helps me sleep and energises me too.
How did you handle the sleep deprivation in the early days?
That was the hardest part I think of becoming a mother – the lack of sleep and not being able to exercise when I wanted to. I didn’t realise that I wasn’t good at waking for feeds and getting back to sleep! I had heard so many people say they just feed and fall back to sleep and so did their children. Neither of my children slept more than four hours at one time until they were way over nine months old so I think that early part of motherhood with the lack of sleep was the hardest. I got through it by reminding myself that one day they will sleep and I will miss the cuddles in the middle of the night. I have to say I still get cuddles and I am very happy to get to sleep. I do have to say though I used to dream of eight hours, but now that I am a mum I can survive on six hours most nights. My family and friends also helped and supported me in those early days. I loved my mothers group because my family was in Sydney. It was a great resource and I made some life long friends there.
Growing up, did you always love performing? Can you tell us about your childhood?
Yes I was obsessed with performing from two years old. My stage was our living room and I would make up dances and play music and do little shows for my parents from that young age. Poor them, I am sure they weren’t good shows, but they encouraged me to be creative. At three I went to a kindergarten, which had a ballet school above it. I could hear the music and loved it and I very quickly realised that they were all being given jelly beans at the end of their ballet class, which was also another good reason to want to do that ballet class. I went home and asked my mother and of course she said yes and from that first ballet class onwards I never stopped dancing until the end of my career at 28 years old. I did the mini shows for my family and their friends and later with my dance friends until I left home at 14 to go to the Australian Ballet School where I could dance full time. I couldn’t believe I was going to get to dance five days a week all day… it was a dream come true. I spent all the years before this running from school to dance class every day and all day Saturday trying to fit it all in. It wasn’t easy but all I really wanted to do was dance. The hardest part was leaving Sydney and having to leave my mum at such a young age, but I was focused on being a professional dancer from such an early age and she had been very supportive about me chasing my dreams.
After three years at the Australian Ballet School I was offered a job with the Australian Ballet. There were only two jobs offered with 30-40 people in the graduating year so it was a real honor. After two years in the chore I was promoted to soloist and then senior artist two years after that. It’s an amazing life travelling and dancing with such talented artists and musicians and getting to do what you love for a career, but it was also extremely demanding. We danced seven shows a week, 150 shows a year and when we weren’t performing we were practicing up to eight hours a day, six days a week! So my little shows in the living room ended up much larger performances on major stages around the world which meant I never stopped performing or dancing, that is for sure.
“ We danced seven shows a week, 150 shows a year and when we weren’t performing we were practicing up to eight hours a day, six days a week! ”
How has ballet changed your life?
The music, the ballets, the costumes and the creative people around me have certainly inspired me. Ballet also taught me discipline – our training was hard and relentless like it is for most professional athletes. It’s one of the parts I actually miss the most, as well as the live classical music. I do use the discipline and motivation that was instilled in me from being a professional ballet dancer in my life now as a mum and with my business with Flo Dancewear and Flo Active.
What did your own parents teach you about life and motherhood?
My father died when I was three years old, so I was brought up by my mother and later my stepfather too. Mum taught me to be focused on what I want to do and go for it and dream big. Mum was a successful model herself so she understood my passion for dancing. She never pushed me as she knew I had an inner drive. Looking back, I think it would have been hard for her to watch me pushing myself so hard physically and mentally but she knew it was what I wanted and she was proud of what I had achieved. Through her influence I have learned how important it is to follow your dreams and will always encourage my children to follow theirs. I also hope to give them as many opportunities as possible. As she was a working single mum for so much of my childhood, my mum taught me to have a strong work ethic – another factor I hope to instil in my children.
“ Through her influence I have learned how important it is to follow your dreams and will always encourage my children to follow theirs... As she was a working single mum for so much of my childhood, my mum taught me to have a strong work ethic – another factor I hope to instil in my children. ”
What do you remember about starting to dance as a young child?
I remember that from starting classes at three years old I never wanted to do anything else! I had music and dance in my mind all of the time, practicing steps over and over in my head, on my own and in classes. I wanted to be the best I could be and I soaked up all the information my teachers gave me and was so grateful for the talented teachers I had along the way. I didn’t just do ballet. From about 4 to 14, I was doing jazz, contemporary, tap, hip hop and even gymnastics, but I always loved the classical and contemporary ballets the most. It was my passion, it pushed my body the hardest and also it was the hardest thing to do well and make it look easy!
What are your most vivid memories of being a ballet dancer?
My most vivid memories are my favorite ballets I danced in particular countries with certain dance partners, and the feelings I had dancing those roles onstage, and the elation I felt when the audiences reacted to what I had danced. Some of the biggest highlights were the lead roles in full-length ballets. I danced as a senior artist and soloist from the classics like Don Quixote, Coppélia and Nutcracker and more to the contemporary ballets like In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, Bella Figura, Por Vos Muero. Don Quixote was my favourite classical ballet because of its fiery subrete dancer. I had watched it over and over as a child – videos with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. I had memorised every step before I even had a job with the Australian Ballet. I had wanted to dance the lead role of Kitri. The steps suited my style of dancing. I still remember when the casting went up on the board and the feeling of elation I had when Ross Stretton, the director of the Australian Ballet at the time, had cast me as Kitri for the Sydney and Melbourne seasons. I’m pretty sure I danced a little happy dance in the dressing room after I had seen that go up. Prior to the Australian Season we toured China where I was lucky enough to realise my dream role sooner than I had anticipated. I was also promoted to senior artist at the end of the tour to a standing ovation in front of my peers on stage, which was completely amazing!
What led you to launch FLO Dancewear/FLO Active?
I designed for a large international dancewear company towards the end of my ballet career and then for years after I retired. The company was based in Sydney and my role involved a lot of overseas travel. My husband and his work network were in Melbourne and when I was pregnant with Isabella we decided to move back to Melbourne. I went on maternity leave for the first 12 months after having Isabella and then I slowly started back at work and realised very quickly I didn’t want to be leaving her as much as my job required. I didn’t want to leave her at all actually!
Isabella was lying on a big pile of beautiful tulle and I took some photos of her just for me and one in particular ended up being my first Flo Dancewear marketing shot. She was my inspiration. I wanted to create a range of dance inspired pieces in beautiful easy to care for fabrics that were perfect for ballet class or for play. Looking at the 2 – 7 age group, it was important that the range was special but also well priced. Dancing is expensive for parents and I wanted to offer them something that was great quality and looked beautiful but wouldn’t cost a fortune. I sourced the fabrics first – it’s one of the elements that separates Flo Dancewear from its competitors – the super soft fabrics that are used in every style of mine. The brand has continued to evolve and we now make everything a little girl needs to go to their ballet classes or just twirl and play around in like my daughter and I did as youngsters, including well-priced tights and leather ballet shoes. Flo Active was a natural progression from Flo Dancewear. The collection was designed specifically for the tween market.
Some fashion experts are predicting that there will soon be 20 something’s who have never owned a pair of jeans. Activewear pieces are becoming their every day clothes. According to the Piper Jaffray survey on youth spending, gym and activewear now account for one third of teen fashion purchases – up from just 6% in 2008. The activewear category is really popular with the older children as it looks cool, is comfortable and means they can go from their friend’s place to their dance classes, sports training and still look fashionable in between. There didn’t seem to be anyone focusing on the 8-14 girls market and designing activewear specifically for them. I like to give my ranges a dance twist – perhaps in a slogan or a slouch of a tee. We also always include fun prints and colour to give the range a youthful edge. The prints and colour can be mixed back with the core black and white in the ranges. We have also found that mums of teens, who are often wearing activewear on their days off, also influence older children in our demographic. Once again, our fabrics are sourced with the teen age group specifically in mind. Our fabrics are soft, stretchy and not too tight, so girls feel comfortable whether relaxing or training. We love to encourage teenage girls to keep active.
Why is the brand unique in the market and what are some of the key offerings?
Flo Dancewear is unique because not many dancers have created their own dancewear range focused solely on kids. I know what dancewear should look and feel like and I also know what the parents and teachers and children want from their dance clothes. Flo Active is unique in that the ranges are designed specifically for the 8-14 age group with unique prints, affordable prices, great fabrics and a dance twist. I spent more time in activewear all through my childhood and teen years than anything else. Kids seem to want to do the same today and love the “dance” feel as a point of difference. It adds a creative element to the clothing and the colours, prints and range on offer allows girls to express their own style in their activewear too.
Can you talk us through your approach to health and wellbeing?
My approach to health and well-being is trying to eat as cleanly as possible. There are cheat days for sure but I try to eat wholefoods and organic when I can. I love exercising – all sorts of training. I am surrounded by very healthy fit friends who have the same approach to health and wellbeing as me. Yoga and cross training are probably my favourite exercise choices. I make sure I get a combination of these in the week when possible – usually with a friend – and followed by a chai almond latte.
What’s a typical day’s diet like for you?
My typical day starts with a banana or two egg whites and a coconut water. If I am rushing from school drop off to work I will grab an almond chai latte on the way. At lunchtime I am crazy about Poke bowls. It’s a Hawaiian type salad that is super clean with raw seafood on top, sashimi style. I eat one almost every day at the moment. In the afternoon I will usually have fresh fruit and a green tea. I love iced teas but try not to have them every day. Dinner usually consists of a protein and salad or my home made chicken soup – it’s easy and healthy and my kids like it too. I love going out for dinner too. French and Japanese would definitely be my favourites. My vices would have to be ice cream, frozen yoghurt and a Diet Coke. I try to keep them to once a week or less…
How do you look after your body?
I try to do a class or exercise myself at least four times a week. Ideally I would do two sessions with weights and some boxing and two other classes of yoga or maybe a spin class in a good week. It can sometimes just be me at home doing some interval training for 20 minutes. My new favourite is body boss – it’s a killer work out and it’s easy to do. You only need your own body weight to do the exercises, it takes 22 minutes and you can do it anywhere.
What were some of your biggest ballet career highlights?
There have been so many. Dancing the leading role of Kitri in Don Quixote in Shanghai and being promoted onstage after. Also Coppélia, playing the lead role of Swanhilda and The Nutcracker playing the lead role of Clara. As far as contemporary ballets…
- Bella Figura and meeting and working with Yuri Killian.
- In The Middle Somewhat Elevated and working with William Forsythe here and in Germany.
- Pour Vos Muero working with Nacho Duato.
These are just some of my favourites as there are simply too many to list. Working with these amazing choreographers and the talented dancers I danced with and beautiful musical scores were all major highlights.
What was the most challenging part of being a ballet dancer?
The most challenging part was having to push my body to its limits for so long and dedicate everything to it. It was my sole focus for over 20 years. It was my choice, but it was also a massive commitment. I only had one day off a week (Sunday) for the 10 years I was with the Australian Ballet which left little time for anything else but to try and recover on my day off. The days were long and hard on your body and mind. A normal day of a professional ballet dancer starts at 9am with rehearsals finishing around 3pm. You are back in the theatre by 5pm starting make up for the show. There is a warm up barre before the show and then you are performing until around 10pm. The whole thing is repeated again the next day with seven shows a week (two on a Saturday). All that aside, however, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world and feel so privileged to have experienced what I did as a ballerina. I followed my dream, it was amazing, and was worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears!
What will you tell your children about your experience as a ballet dancer?
I will and do tell them it was amazing and that it was a special fantasy world that I was in before I had them. They get to see snippets of it every time they see my old dance pictures and sometimes a video and of course they have seen me dancing around them at home since they were babies. Isabella has been to a few ballets at the Australian ballet and I can take her back stage, which she loves. To me it still feels like a second home and for her it’s like seeing a little bit of mum’s past. She is always drawn to the costume department – all the beautiful costumes hanging ready for the next day’s shows. She also likes seeing the dancers she knows as my friends on stage. Ben is almost ready to come along to the ballet with us, he is very interested. He turns seven this year, so I plan to pick the right ballet to take him to with Issy. I think he will love it. One day I hope to show them some of the magic of the leading international ballet companies around the world.
What kind of role model do you want to be for your children?
I always try to nurture and support my children and I love them unconditionally. They see me work hard but always make time for them, for others and for myself too when I can. They are kind and considerate and thoughtful kids. I try every day to show them how loved they are and how special they are and to lead by example. I tell them they can be anything and achieve anything with hard work.