Baby Steps

Baby Steps

M otherhood is a ride, and it starts bumpy—nine months of stress, doctors’ visits, baby books, conflicting advice and, of course, extreme body changes.

Even as Mother’s Day approaches, it’s easy to forget what Mom went through just to get us here in the first place. (We were there for some of it, sure, but we weren’t yet forming long-term memories.) While rest and relaxation intuitively sound like the best medicines for mothers-to-be, it turns out exercise does a body good even while pregnant. Staying active and fit can improve stamina during labor, speed up recovery after birth and alleviate some of the normal aches and discomforts, both physiological and psychological, that attend pregnancy.

Ultimately, that’s why, in 1979, Ann Cowlin birthed Dancing Thru Pregnancy, a fitness program designed specifically for pregnant women. Working as a dancer in residence in an arts center in West Virginia, she was approached by the state health department about developing a fitness regime for expectant mothers.

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When Cowlin began teaching dance at Yale in 1981, she brought the program with her. These days Dancing Thru Pregnancy is an independent contractor for Yale Health, operating classes at both the Yale Health building on Lock Street and the Payne Whitney Gym on Tower Parkway (near the intersection of Whalley, Goffe and Dixwell).

The research-based program—which incorporates relaxation, stretching and a cardio/dance workout with exercises designed to enhance labor-specific skills, like pushing—has been pushing itself to new heights for over 30 years. DTP is constantly evolving as new empirical evidence about exercise and pregnancy comes to light; a section of its website is even dedicated to chronicling those studies.

Over the years, Dancing Thru Pregnancy—which remains the company name, although classes now reside under the banner “Total Pregnancy Fitness”—has gone through structural changes as well, most notably developing a teacher-training program, including a correspondence course. Those trainees subsequently bring what they’ve learned to the world. Cowlin calls these Dancing Thru Pregnancy spinoffs “her offspring” and estimates that they’ve provided exercise to over a million pregnant women through the classes. “My job was not to franchise, but to educate,” she says of the effort.

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“Education” is a word Cowlin uses a lot. As a Certified Childbirth Educator with a Master of Arts in Dance and Certificate in Sports Medicine, she has the credentials to deal with the challenges specific to pregnant women, and to train others to do the same. She’s given talks on the subject from California to South Africa and authored papers in journals and textbooks, all while teaching childbirth education and dance at Yale.

Even so, Cowlin sees education not as a list of accomplishments but as a means of ongoing improvement. She says she is always assessing the efficacy of the program, as well as how she and other instructors can best influence the women they teach.

Judging by a one-hour class I attended recently, personal attention is definitely a priority. The petite Cowlin, who has long black hair and a soothing voice, greets the women by name, and answers their questions about symptoms throughout the session. (An incredibly reasonable $65 fee will get you unlimited classes for a month, by the way.)

The hour starts gently, with soft music, stretching and light strength work, including side pushups, which works well for women with growing bellies.

From there the intensity increases. In the second half, women lace up their sneakers and Cowlin ups the tempo. The Eagles and other classic rock bands lead Cowlin and her students through squats, the grapevine and more choreographed sequences, requiring a fair bit of concentration; you’ll definitely break a sweat.

Which is good, says Cowlin: “If you were going to run a marathon, you’d train right? Labor is like a marathon.”

There are other, less obvious benefits, Cowlin says. For example, all that concentration required in performing the dance moves aids mental stamina, which is quite useful while going into labor.

Further addending the scientific research upon which the program is based, a few moms I talk to mention that they think taking the class in previous pregnancies helped them during labor and birth; others say the exercise is worth it simply because it makes them feel better in general. Plus, there’s a great sense of community in the room. Some of the women who take the class stay in touch for years after their babies are born.

As for Cowlin, she says she’s winding down a bit, doing less traveling for lectures and training sessions. But—always analytical—she says she’s also reassessing her job, and thinking about everything she has learned over the years.

“I think about what it means to relate to these women. What do they need from me?” Guiding these women is an ever-evolving role, she says, requiring lots of upkeep and incremental changes along the way. It’s a lot like being a mother, that way.

Total Pregnancy Fitness by Dancing Thru Pregnancy
Mon & Wed 5:30-6:30pm at Yale Health Center, 55 Lock St, New Haven (map)
Tues & Thurs 12-1pm at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, 70 Tower Pkwy, New Haven (map)
(203) 481-2200

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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