Despite what certain momfluencers will have you believe, every mother has a tricky balancing act. And every mother questions whether they’re doing it right. What is not captured in the family photo is overwhelm, chaos, exhaustion, feelings of guilt, and so many of the big emotions, anxieties and fears that come with motherhood. Jenna Savella and Alexandra MacDonald are First Soloists for the National Ballet of Canada, and also mothers to very young children. They are both, as the saying goes, in the thick of it, but the intense physical demands of their careers present a very unique kind of juggling act.
Onstage we see them in gorgeous costumes, spinning, leaping, bending and twirling with poise, elegance, and grace. But like the rest of us, they are also dealing with 4AM wake-ups, breakfast thrown across the room, tantrums, teething, and the non-stop mayhem that comes with babies and toddlers.
Their schedule is rigorous. After dealing with the morning mess and daycare drop off, Savella and MacDonald head to the studio to begin their daily warm-up routine, followed by 6 hours of intense rehearsal. In addition to daily class, dancers do a variety of exercises to keep their bodies strong. One day this might be weight training, another day pilates, cross-training, or cardio. Dancers never stop moving. It’s something that prepares them well for the muscles that motherhood requires.
“Carrying a 30-pound toddler around is physically demanding and being in a physical career definitely helps with stamina,” says Savella.
MacDonald feels the same way, and remarks how the endurance required for her work has helped make weekends with her two kids (ages 1 and 3) more manageable. “The pure amount of energy output I have to do in a day has helped set me up for the weekends, which are just go-go-go,” she laughs. “How tired I am from dancing on a daily basis is very similar to how tired I am after dealing with two toddlers for a day!”
Unlike moms returning to a desk job, professional dancers also need to prepare their postpartum bodies for the stage. “The number one thing required is so much patience. It’s important to constantly remind myself that my body is still healing, even a year out. My midwife reminded me that even a year and a half after birth, a mom is depleted from certain minerals and vitamins, so remembering that is important.”
While dancing has helped them with the physical demands of motherhood, their time at work also supports their mental wellbeing—giving them space for their own thoughts and movement. “It’s such a lovely change of pace, to be focused on yourself and then come home and focus on other people,” says MacDonald. “I go to work and it’s a very internal thing that I do, my focus is very much on how is my body going to interpret these steps. I use my body to tell a story. And then, when I go home, it’s not about me at all. It’s about these little beings and their energy and making sure they feel loved.”
June is an exceptionally busy month at the National Ballet, and MacDonald and Savella are currently rehearsing for two upcoming shows: Frame by Frame (June 2 – 11), and Romeo and Juliet (June 15 – 25). Every minute of each show requires an hour of rehearsal time. Given that, there is very little time for self-care, but both moms know how crucial it is to self-preservation.
“A single bubble bath or face mask isn’t going to cut it,” quips MacDonald, who thinks that ‘self-care’ is often used as a marketing tool for things that provide temporary relief, but don’t actually support women. For her, carving out 5-10 minutes for a daily yoga nidra practice has become an important way to get centered and find calm. “Anything that can affect my mood and make me a happier person is going to make me a happier parent, and bring more joy to my work, and help me be a more patient parent too.”
For Savella, time to connect with a friend brings immeasurable value. “Something that is self-care to me is spending time with a friend and having uninterrupted conversation,” she says, chuckling that “coffee has also been a good friend”.
Like most of us, MacDonald and Savella readily admit that they haven’t figured it all out. Despite being in top physical condition, they (like most) were shocked at just how intense motherhood is—a role that is far more complex and demanding than any performance they’d encountered. “It’s a constant juggle and a constant negotiation,” says Savella, who never doubted that she could do both—ballet and motherhood—but underestimated how difficult it would be.
But they’re doing it, and with each month, navigating the ups and downs and unpredictable variables in this new life gets a little easier. (Or if not easier, the ability to problem solve becomes more familiar.)
Their kids understand that their mothers are ballerinas, but both MacDonald and Savella are excited for the time when they can take them deeper into the world of ballet, and show their children all the magical elements that help bring a production to life.
“When my son can come to the theatre and look at all the costumes and see the sets and props… that’s what I’m looking forward to most,” says MacDonald, excitedly. “I get to go in and be someone else and play dress up with beautiful costumes and dance to beautiful music and I try to bring that playfulness and joy into parenting.”