Exercise can be a really controversial topic in the field of pregnancy and beyond. Advice can be conflicting, from women being told to ‘rest up and take it easy’, to being advised just to be active, to being encouraged to be fit and strong. Although there may be medical reasons to avoid pushing the body, I generally recommend my clients exercise through pregnancy and the postnatal months. Exercise maintains and even improves strength, flexibility, co-ordination, body awareness as well as supporting the hormonal balance, moods and energy levels. It’s near impossible to trust your body if you don’t experience being in your body. It makes sense to opt for less intensity, but exercise can still be challenging.
It’s important to seek out experienced and safe exercise professionals that offer a style that works for your needs- life’s too short to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do! There’s a lot of choice in local areas- yoga, fitness classes, buggy fitness, pilates and so much more.
A few years ago I came across a ballet teacher in New York who posted stunning pictures of her pregnant self still practicing beautiful poses with seemingly effortless alignment and control. It was powerful to see ballet in this way- previously I had been taught that women who had done a lot of ballet struggled with releasing their pelvic floor which could often lead to birth complications. My judgement was that ballet could be too rigid compared with the rhythmic undulating movements that serve in pregnancy.
I relish the chance to have my mind opened, and my curiosity piqued. When I came across Preg Dance, I was delighted to find a ballet class for pregnant and postnatal women in London. I met with Elisa who runs the classes and we took the time to talk about our approaches and perspectives. It was refreshing to meet an exercise professional who shared a lot of similar philosophies.
I was invited to try her classes and turned up one crisp sunny morning for a double dose of ballet. It’s been over 25 years since I have taken a ballet class, and I have to admit to feeling a little apprehensive. What was so apparent is that the class is for everyone- regardless of experience or a particular body type. I think this is particularly important for a class that serves women at a time when their body is so different to the one they have been accustomed to.
The pregnancy class involved some ballet terminology, which felt chic but accessible, and somehow helped to liberate me to move my body with more grace. Steps were taught and then practiced at the barre, with a mirror helping for alignment. Engaging the feet helped me to really work through my body- it’s hard work learning to lengthen through the legs! Using my arms in upward and outward directions helped to open out through the chest and back- I can see this really helping with pregnancy postures. Elisa is a beautiful dancer, but she’s also extremely encouraging and teaches with passion. Her pregnancy classes leave women smiling, and the end of the session closes with a well-earned guided relaxation.
The second class was the mother-and-baby ballet. It started off with songs and stretches for the babies with lots of cuddles and eye contact and joy. We then moved to the barre and the mums carried their babies in slings. I really noticed the tempo, as there was so much for the babies to take in such as the classical music, to the other babies in the room. However nothing was over-stimulating, and without exception they all fell asleep during the class- being safe and held, whilst allowing the mums to have an uninterrupted workout for body, mind and soul. I left feeling invigorated and relaxed, with more space in my body and a calmer mind.
To be honest I am surprised that more classes aren’t offered that include baby-wearing- it makes practical sense and I think they feel involved whilst still giving space for the mums.
Elisa kindly took the time to answer my questions about ballet for pregnant women and mums and babies. Here is our conversation below:
You trained as a pregnancy yoga teacher as well as ballet teacher- how do the 2 disciplines complement one another?
Yoga and ballet have lots in common. Both work on your physical body to lengthen and strengthen it in a way that can be intense but pleasurable at the same time.
And both work on your inner being, allowing you to focus, be centred and learn to live in the present moment.
During my almost 20 years of dancing life in Italy I tried only a few yoga classes. My dedication was mainly on ballet. But when I moved to London, taking the decision to stop dancing, I’ve discovered how much ballet and yoga have in common, and I let myself discover the ‘yogini’s world’. Yoga opened me up to a more spiritual relation to the physical practice. Especially during pregnancy, yoga helped me to connect deeply with my mind, body and baby.
In PregDance, ballet and yoga fuse together in a combination of physical strength, balance and flexibility, together with connecting to the spiritual side of transforming yourself as a mother and nurturing a baby inside you or in your arms.
What do you think is unique about pregnancy and post natal ballet compared with other types of exercise?
I believe any type of exercise practiced during pregnancy (as long as it’s safe and run by professional in the fields) is beneficial to a low risk mum to be and new mum.
PregDance exercises have many benefits for a mums-to-be and new mum body and mind.
Ballerinas are renowned to have the perfect posture, great balance, lean and elongated limbs, great grace and lightness. During pregnancy, your body keeps changing its posture and alignment, feels heavier and the organs get squeezed the more the baby grows.
Ballet exercises help to adjust your body during these changes.
We work a lot in both the pregnancy and postnatal classes on building strength to support our growing baby or to support baby wearing.
Ballet is a really intense workout and, whilst PregDance classes are specifically adapted to provide safe and beneficial exercises for this period of life, the exercise we practise during the class still require focus, balance, strength. But we love to smile during the classes! I always encourage mums to let go, enjoy the music and feel light and long with the upper body!
Music too plays an important part in the class: it inspires, it allows to connect deeply with your baby in a way you might not do in other classes. You are dancing and bonding with your baby, in the womb or in your arms, getting to know each other and allowing both of you to embark on this journey together.
-Can even uncoordinated and complete beginners attend a class?
Oh yes! Most of the mums that join PregDance classes have been practicing ballet when they were probably 5 years old!
It might be difficult during the first classes to follow the coordination of legs and arms, but once your mind gets used to the exercise, you can easily follow all the way through, discovering more and more your body in each class.
How did you become passionate about baby wearing and what makes you keen to share the art of baby wearing with other mothers?
I’ve worn my babies since their early days (and I am still doing with my 2 years old). At the beginning I was doing it mainly for convenience: they were sleeping better and I had my hands free (especially with the second one!). Only when I started reading and studying about it I became fully passionate, about the scientific reasons that shows the benefit in your baby’s development of being so close to mum’s or dad’s body.
Now, as with everything that I do with PregDance, I love to share with mums what I learned during my pregnancy and motherhood experience. Baby wearing has helped me and the relationship with my children and I would love to let other mothers discover the benefits of this practice, and I encourage them to do it in the safest and most comfortable way.
-How does activating through the feet and legs help with the pelvis in pregnancy?
The feet are the base of our body. Especially during pregnancy it’s important for the feet to be strong to support the changing body and its increasing weight. A good posture of the feet (with all toes spread on the floor and the arch of the feet engaged), allows your body to find its balance (which during pregnancy changes on a daily basis), to feel grounded and to spread the increasing weight evenly on the body. If your feet are correctly grounded on the floor, you are spreading the weight on your knees, joints, pelvis; your lower back widens and you are transferring your weight without stress to the ground, avoiding common pregnancy ailments such as lower back pain, joins pain and sciatica.
This is as much import during pregnancy as throughout your life.
A good posture of the feet is the foundation of a great pregnancy, postnatal and all-life wellness.
Can pregdance improve postnatal recovery? If so, how?
I am always reluctant when mums ask to get their body back after only a few weeks after the birth of their baby. Their body took 9 months to transform to hold and then deliver the baby that they hold on their arms. I believe we should allow the same amount of time to bring it to how it was before pregnancy.
PregDance works on strengthening and elongating your body, as well as ‘opening’ to counter balance the position most new mums experience while feeding/changing their baby.
During the postnatal ballet class a lot of focus is placed on the ‘core’ strength. We don’t do sit ups, but we work on letting mums take their awareness on the abdomen, by bringing the navel to their spine and lifting their pelvic floor muscles. A strong core makes baby wearing easier too, so I encourage mums to work with their core and with building a strong back to avoid the weight to be left only on the shoulders.
What’s your vision/ mission for PregDance?
All my work and passion with PregDance is dedicated to support mums to prepare physically and emotionally to the arrival of their baby, helping them to live a calm, healthy and joyous pregnancy and motherhood.
Ballet is a form of art. And I hope that by sharing this special artistic time with mothers and babies, we create a community of respect, love and creativity.