To be a dancer is to live fully, often painfully, in one’s body — to intimately know every tendon, to feel every life change play out through your muscles and bones. A dancer’s body is her everything: her tool, her craft, her product, her livelihood. But for Alicia Graf Mack, a professional ballerina who has performed with Beyoncé, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, motherhood opened up a new world of body knowledge. It also challenged her to work from within a new form. “Once you have kids, your time and your body are no longer your own,” she tells Romper.
From a debilitating diagnosis that forced her to leave her role as a principal dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem just a few years after earning that coveted place at the age of 17, to her most recent physical transformation into motherhood and just-announced appointment as director of the Juilliard Dance Division, Graf Mack’s ongoing path as a woman and artist has been, and continues to be, a winding labor of love.
There have been several such periods in Graf Mack’s life during which physical limitations have demanded she step away from full-time dancing. The first came just a few years into that hard-earned place with Dance Theater of Harlem, when she discovered that the excruciating pain she’d been experiencing in her ankles, knees, and lower back was more than the typical toll a ballerina’s life takes on her body: Graf Mack received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disorder and form of arthritis that affects the spine and causes inflammation in the joints. By dancing on those inflamed joints and compromised spine, she explains, Graf Mack was repeatedly injuring herself, and at the age of 21, she had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put her dance career on hold, perhaps indefinitely.
I always knew I wanted to have a family; I just didn’t know when it was going to happen.
“Leaving Dance Theater of Harlem was absolutely devastating,” she says. “I had never had to consider my life as anything but a dancer, and the first injury and discovering my illness completely rocked my world.” But Graf Mack used the time as an opportunity to get her undergraduate degree — something many professional dancers don’t get the opportunity to do — at Columbia University, majoring in history. After her graduation in 2003 (magna cum laude with honors), Graf Mack was able to work her way back to her pointe shoes, landing a coveted spot in the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. She worked there for six years in total, taking another “break” to earn a Master’s degree in public administration at Washington University in St. Louis during a flare up of the autoimmune disorder.
“Every time I stepped away from dancing, I sort of re-tooled myself with education,” the 39-year-old mother of two tells me over the phone — she’s calling me from her car, as she sits outside a Whole Foods in St. Louis, where she’s been a visiting assistant professor of dance at Webster University for the past four years, her lunch on the seat next to her.
Several years after returning to Alvin Ailey, a debilitating back injury brought Graf Mack’s dancing to a halt yet again in 2014.
“I was touring and dancing and I was so happy and fulfilled,” she says of that time in her life. But one morning while in Los Angeles with the company, the dancer woke up in excruciating pain, barely able to move. An MRI in San Francisco (the next spot on the tour) revealed a badly herniated disc, and after “the most painful four hours” of her life — the flight back to her home in St. Louis — Graf Mack underwent intensive back surgery.
“That was a pretty tough time in my life,” she shares. “I feel like I knew that was the end of my formal dancing career. I’m still dancing and moving now, thank God. But I knew that marked the end.”
It also marked a beginning.
As dancers we self-obsess so much that it can be negative. We’re looking at ourselves in the mirror all the time. And we're thinking, How can it be better? How can we do better? How can the body achieve more?
Post-surgery, Graf Mack was bedridden and, for the first time in a while, at home with her husband Kirby Mack (whom she met at Columbia) and not on the road with Alvin Ailey. “I got pregnant during my healing process … That’s what happens when you have a long distance marriage!” she laughs. “I was actually home for more than a week or two at a time ... and boom!"
“I always knew I wanted to have a family; I just didn’t know when it was going to happen,” Graf Mack shares, adding that the years she spent touring and performing didn’t really “go together” with having a baby. Discovering she was going to be a mother at this point in her life was a revelation. “It was like, wow, there's life after this career,” she says. “There’s so much life story to discover!”
The pregnancy, and her preparation for childbirth, came just a few months into her recuperation from the surgery. With those two things happening simultaneously in her body, Graf Mack’s physical therapist created a core- and back-strengthening regimen to ensure the dancer would be prepared to carry the extra weight that would come further into her pregnancy.
“We knew we had some time to strengthen that core before there was no core left!” she laughs.
In March of 2015, Alicia and Kirby welcomed their son Jordan into the world. “I was in shock, terrified, and completely in love at the same time,” Graf Mack says when asked what it was like to hold her baby in her arms for the first time.
Although her birth was relatively free of trauma, other than an episiotomy —“I was ready, I was really strong,” she says of her physical state during her pregnancy — she was surprised by just how long it took for her body to recuperate once Jordan was born.
“I just expected that I would just bounce back really fast,” Graf Mack says. “Oh just spit out a baby and keep moving!” But, she says, Jordan proved her wrong. “I was destroyed … I kid you not, I could not sit for more than maybe 15 minutes without being in pain,” she reveals. And this had nothing to do with her now-healed back injury, and everything to do with the physical trauma of giving birth, she says. “It took so much longer than I thought. I felt like I had gone through a car wreck, like literally. I would say it took a good three months to feel like I actually was healing from the trauma of having a baby, and then another six to nine — or more — months just to feel back into myself again.”
Your pelvis, where it is, shifts so much.
Her timeline for recovery was shortened when Graf Mack got an invitation to perform at a Lincoln Center gala with Alvin Ailey for a night three months after delivering.
“It happened, and I felt pretty fit in my body, but now I look back and … I wish I hadn’t put that pressure on myself to get back into dancing shape and wear a white leotard. Who wants to do that?”
The healing process took a long time in part because the new mom was coming to terms with how much the pregnancy and childbirth affected and changed her, physically. “Dancers are so in tune with their body, and your body shifts so much — your pelvis, where it is, shifts so much.” Her recovery meant familiarizing herself with this new, transformed body. “Finding my center again, finding my core again, finding my pelvic muscles again,” she explains. “All of those things are so essential for dancing.”
And then, at the end of that year of recuperation from giving birth, Graf Mack got pregnant with her daughter, Laila, who is now 1-and-a-half. “Here we go again!” she remembers thinking.
I have a little bit more roundness, a little more curvature; my skin is a little more stretched out in my stomach … in my past, less mature brain and body, I would judge myself. And now I don’t. I'm like, this is the mark of having these two beautiful children. I created two lives. If I have a little bit of a belly, so what?
Another shock for Graf Mack was her difficulty with breastfeeding. “With both of my kids, I thought that breastfeeding would be easy and natural for me,” she says. “I’m very comfortable in my body, I'm not very shy about being around other people and breastfeeding. But neither my kids nor I took to breastfeeding, and that was a tough reality in the beginning,” she confesses. “With Jordan, we did manage to breastfeed for about month just naturally and it was a struggle, I mean for both of us. I ended up pumping for another two months... By three months, I finally said, you know what? We’re gonna go with formula. I felt like I was gonna have a party!”
When it came to her newborn daughter Laila, she was “kinder” to herself, Graf Mack says. “I said OK, we’ll try it with the understanding that if it doesn’t work out with her, then I'm not gonna kill myself over it.” After a week or two, she switched to using a bottle. “I pumped for a month and then we went to formula because it was just too hard.”
I understand a little bit more what it is to make a gesture about embracing a child, or make a gesture about wrapping your arms around an idea.”
Becoming a mom has changed Graf Mack, as it does every mother, and not just because our pelvises permanently shift. “First of all, I’m just kinder to myself,” she says. “As dancers we self-obsess so much that it can be negative. We’re looking at ourselves in the mirror all the time. And we're thinking, How can it be better? How can we do better? How can the body achieve more?” But after having two kids, she explains, “Just being present in the room? I’m already winning.”
“I just see my artistry and my physical self in a more forgiving way,” she adds. “That translates into so many other things in my life — just to say it’s OK, you’re doing the best you can.”
That kindness that Graf Mack has discovered toward herself extends to the way she sees her own body. “I have a little bit more roundness, a little more curvature; my skin is a little more stretched out in my stomach… I notice those things,” she says. “I know other people wouldn't, but I know in my past, less mature brain and body, I would judge myself. And now I don’t. I'm like, this is the mark of having these two beautiful children. I created two lives. If I have a little bit of a belly, so what?”
And as for that artistry, this dancer says the experience of having a child, “the miracle of bringing a life into the world,” has informed her craft in so many ways. “I feel like I'm that much richer for it,” she says. “Because I’m very tall, most of the roles that I've been given are like, the mother spirit role, or the queen. I’ve played those roles since I was 17 years old.” To revisit those roles now, Graf Mack shares, “It's like, I get it now! I understand a little bit more what it is to make a gesture about embracing a child, or make a gesture about wrapping your arms around an idea.”
It has taken her some time to wrap her mind around the demands of motherhood. She explains, “As a dancer you’re so used to the regimen of getting up and being very selfish. You get up, you fuel your body with things that you need to get through the day, you train your body for at least an hour and a half ... you have the luxury of working in your artistry for the whole day. And then if you’re lucky then you get to perform, and that is a whole other blessing.”
These days? “I don't have time to do that!” Currently splitting her time between St. Louis and her husband’s new home-base of Houston, where Graf Mack has additional teaching commitments as an adjunct dance instructor at the University of Houston, she gets on her spin bike at home for about 45 minutes twice a week. “I do everything in the morning at 5 a.m. because I know somebody is going to wake up by 6:30 or 7, and then my time is no longer mine!”
I see growth in a completely different way — appreciating every small victory and development.
Graf Mack says that when it comes to maintaining her training and keeping her body in dancing shape, she’s learned to take it in phases. “This semester was the phase for teaching, and I haven't trained much,” she explains. This summer when she’s not teaching as much, she’ll have a little more time to think about herself.
“That's be biggest thing with having kids: as a dancer you can be so selfish with your time and your body,” she says.
Soon, Graf Mack and her family will be moving to the New York area, where she will take up the reins at Juilliard in July — a move that would have been almost impossible to imagine just three years ago, while recuperating in bed from that “career-ending” back surgery. To her role at the head of the prestigious dance program, Graf Mack will bring a lifetime of artistry and evolution. And her body’s journey has made other growth possible.
“Being a mother has informed my work as an educator,” Graf Mack explains. “I see growth in a completely different way — appreciating every small victory and development. I also realize that we are all born with certain characteristics that are inherent from the day we are conceived. It is my job as an educator to appreciate each student’s unique make-up and enhance those strengths.”
Even in light of the physical challenges motherhood has presented, “I’m grateful that my kids arrived at the time that they did,” she says. “I think I needed it for my spirit.”
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.