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Fit Follow-Up: Alicia Graf Mack

  • Name: Alicia Graf Mack
  • Child: Jordan, born March 7, 2015
  • Claim to Fame: With her statuesque stage presence and jaw-dropping style that is both balletic and athletic, Alicia Graf Mack is one of those dancers that makes the seemingly impossible look effortless. But Mack, best known as one of the lead dancers for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is no stranger to challenges. She recovered from major back surgery, had her first child and was back on stage last month for her farewell appearance as an Ailey dancer at Lincoln Center in New York—all within about a year. “My last performance and Jordan was in the wings,” she says of her son, “which was really neat! It was just a really special performance.” We chatted with her by phone from St. Louis, Missouri—where she lives, teaches dance at Webster and Washington universities and runs D(n)A Arts Collective, which she and her sister, Daisha, created—about developing as an artist and an athlete and learning just how powerful motherhood can be.
Q: How did you approach fitness during your pregnancy?

A: I had back surgery in April 2014 in St. Louis. I found out I was pregnant the end of June, very beginning of July. It was a little scary because I had a major surgery and the thought of holding another 35, 40 pounds on my spine was a lot. I hit the peak of my physical therapy while I was gaining weight. In that sense, I was forced to be physical and work out because I was so afraid of having weakness in my spine.

Q: What was the injury?

A: I had a very badly herniated disc so I had a microdiscectomy, where they removed pretty much all of the disc. Just a little bit is left there now.

Q: What workouts did you turn to?

A: I was in the gym every day. I did the elliptical, with a pretty high resistance. I did a lot of the treadmill, walking on an incline. The weather was nice here, so I did a lot of walking outside. No running, nothing with impact. A lot of core-strengthening exercises, specifically back-strengthening exercises. I had to get creative. My therapist helped me create a regimen that would be healthy for the baby and good for my back. I was also taking yoga up until about my seventh month.

Q: Anything dance specific?

A: I was not performing or teaching full-time while I was pregnant. I have a company called D(n)A Arts Collective, with my sister, and we teach workshops all over the country. I did that. I was very active. I worked out right up until the day Jordan was born—and by working out I mean walking and doing lots of lunges and that kind of thing.

Q: How does your back feel now?

A: It feels pretty good. [The injury] wasn’t necessarily career ending, but it was career changing. I’m not able to do the type of intense work that I used to—an eight-, ten-hour workday with performances eight times a week. I don’t think my body can handle that. At the same time I have an autoimmune disorder [ankylosing spondylitis], which was interesting because while I was pregnant I couldn’t take the medication that I usually take. Your body—from what I’ve heard and now that I’ve experienced it I know it’s true—creates so many antibodies while you’re pregnant and all the hormones and all the extra blood. I think that actually put my disease into remission for that time period. My joints felt better than they’ve ever felt before.

Q: Very interesting. Was the birth what you envisioned?

A: It was fantastic. It went better than I had expected. I had it in my mind that I was going to be so late that I would have to be induced. I was thinking it was going to be the worst situation ever. Then my water broke two days before my due date and it was a very quick, painless labor, of course with the help of medicine. So that was beautiful. And I really enjoyed the experience. The doctor was laughing at me because when she was telling me to push, I was like, “Can you correct my technique? Like, am I in the right place?” And she did and I followed along! So that’s one thing about being a dancer that can help with life.

Q: And how did being a dancer inform your recovery?

A: After the birth I did not expect to be in so much pain. My tailbone was really bruised. They tell you four to six weeks to feel back to normal. I think I’m still trying to adjust back to normal with my body. Dancers are just so in tune with every little part of their body. I also had the looming [laughs] opportunity to perform on June 16, 18 and 21. So essentially three months and some change after having Jordan I was scheduled to be back on stage.

Q: Wow! That’ll get you moving.

A: Looking back that was probably pretty dumb! But it was my chance to take my last bow as an Alvin Ailey dancer and I didn’t want to miss that chance. I’ve had a lot of times where I’ve had to leave the dance world because of my autoimmune disorder and so I was like, if this is going to be the last time, I want to know it’s my last time. I want to end it the way I want it to. After about six weeks I got back in the gym and I went back to the elliptical and the treadmill.

Q: What did you perform?

A: The signature work of Alvin Ailey called Revelations. The part that I did was the umbrella woman, who is a very matronly figure, a very matronly role. I had done it many times, but it felt so different to do it actually as a mother and someone who had experienced some challenges.

Q: How were those first few dance workouts back?

A: Oooh… it was rough! I had my stamina because I’d been in the gym, but it felt like things were readjusting. I could feel odd things in my hips—they didn’t feel strong. And I’m very flexible, but I felt I had lost some type of flexibility in some way. It’s very hard to explain. Then I went back to taking dance class because I had to start work on my technique before I went back to do the show. That was hard. I hadn’t taken class in over a year, since before the surgery. But it was so enjoyable!

Q: How did becoming a mother affect you as a dancer and a teacher?

A: I am now going to pick and choose the projects that mean a lot to me. That I can justify are okay for taking me away from time with my son. It helps me to prioritize what I want to do and who I want to be as an artist. It has also given me a newfound respect for working with other people’s children. Seeing Jordan develop: One day he struggles with tummy time and then one day he kind of likes it! And now he’s starting to roll over! Those are the baby steps that dancers take when they learn. You don’t just wake up able to hold your leg above your head! You have to work at it.

Q: What are you doing now as far as workouts?

A: At this four-month juncture, I am kind of getting it in when I can. My husband is a great support; we kind of switch off. If I’m teaching, I’ll go and do that, or if I want to go to the gym or take a yoga class, I’ll do that. I try to eat very healthy, which I think is really the key to health and your well-being. And I try to get outside with Jordan, too. Inside of driving, we walk. Sometimes when he’s napping, I’ll pull my yoga mat out and I’ll find a nice podcast or YouTube class. Thank God for technology because I can do lots of different workouts from home. When he gets a little older I hope to spend more time in the gym, but right now it’s not happening [laughs].

Q: What advice would you give to pregnant women about staying active and keeping perspective?

A: I would say stay moving. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t have to be an intense workout, but keep moving, keep that blood flowing. And be forgiving of yourself. If you’re someone like me, who is used to being physical all the time and whose body is used to being pushed, it’s very hard to step back and be okay with walking slowly on the treadmill, no incline, not running. Sometimes I had to stop if I got lightheaded or it just wasn’t a good day or I was nauseous. Then I would have to say, “You know? It’s okay. I am creating a life!”

Q: When you were rehearsing for your final Ailey performance, was there a moment when you felt like, oh, that feels like old times?

A: Oh, definitely during the performances. I was surprised at how good my body felt. And I think that was because of how I had stayed physical throughout my pregnancy, in terms of my stamina. It’s not an easy piece. So I was like, wow, this feels great—back in my element! But it pales in comparison to the joy that I have with Jordan. That was an interesting revelation, I guess you could say, while I was performing Revelations.

Photo: Kevin Garrett (dance shot)
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