Each night during the holiday season, Cassady Chiarelli waits in the wings, sparkling like a snowflake. But before she and her fellow Radio City Rockettes high-kick it onstage, the mother of two scrambles for her cell phone. "The hardest thing about my job is that I don't get to put my kids to bed many nights," she says. "So before I go on, I call them, sing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' and say good night."
This holiday season is Cassady's eighth with the world-famous precision dance troupe of more than 200 women. Balancing these high-profile performances with motherhood can be tricky. Cassady puts in nearly 50 hours a week rehearsing for and performing in the Chicago version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, held at the Rosemont Theatre. Dance troupes in eight other cities perform this version, which differs slightly from the famed production at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. "It's hard to juggle everything, but I'm a better mom when I perform, because besides my kids, being onstage is my joy," Cassady says. "I love going to work and spreading cheer and excitement to families everywhere. That energy spreads into my own family."
Cassady started dance lessons when she was 3. At 10, she says, "I made a declaration that I wanted to dance for the rest of my life." Four years later, her parents let her leave their home in Dallas to attend Interlochen's performing-arts boarding school in Michigan. There, she shifted her focus from ballet to jazz and tap, which she calls "my real passions." Before she graduated, she was approached by jazz dance educator Gus Giordano, who asked her to audition for his company, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. She delayed college and began a two-year apprenticeship with the company and also performed in industrial shows to help pay the bills. In these corporate stage productions, she did everything from dressing up like Cinderella for a Disney movie premiere to sitting on a Porsche and smiling at people for an entire day. In her fourth year with Gus's company (she'd been asked to stay on), Cassady decided to try out for her dream job. She'd grown up watching the Radio City Rockettes dance in the televised Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She remembers calling her grandmother, who lived in Shreveport, LA, to critique the show with her each year. Also, Cassady's first dance teacher had been a Rockette, "so I grew up telling everyone I'd be one, too." Unlike the hundreds of women each year who try out but don't make the line, Cassady was selected after her first audition. "Working for the Rockettes is a very physical and time-demanding job," says Karen Affinito, publicity manager for Radio City's entertainment programs. "It's twice as difficult for moms. What Cassady does in balancing performances with two young children is nothing short of spectacular." Cassady spent huge gaps of time away from her investment-banker husband of six years, James, during the early years of their marriage because the Rockettes sent her to perform Christmas shows in Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and other cities. She also continued touring for another three years with the Giordano company. "My husband was very understanding about the demands of my job because he had once been a professional trumpet player who also toured," she says. But when the couple decided to start their family, Cassady stopped performing with the Giordano troupe to focus on her home life. The births of son Jac, 2, and daughter Calli, 5 months, were perfectly and purposefully timed. "I planned both of my pregnancies so I could be ready to perform in the Christmas Spectacular," she says. "With my son, I got pregnant in October, danced pregnant for three and a half months and gave birth in July. That left me two and a half months to get back in shape for October rehearsals." She repeated the pattern with Calli. After having each baby, Cassady was able to return to fall rehearsals in shape and within her required weight range. But while her body was ready, her heart wasn't. The first day back to work after Jac's birth, she sobbed as she drove to rehearsal. Eventually, the other dancers had to get used to a foreign sound in the dressing room before each show: the steady swoosh of her breast pump. Now, over time and with the help of a part-time caregiver and twice-monthly cleaning services, her family has hit its groove. "If it's a choice between reading a story to my kids or cleaning the toilet," she says, "the choice is clear." Cassady knows, though, that a professional dancer's career is short, since many dancers start hanging up their shoes in their thirties. So two years ago she began preparing for her life after performing: She is studying to become a physical therapist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "For a performer, injuring yourself is inevitable. There aren't that many therapists who understand dancers' bodies," she says. "I want to help the dancers who are coming up through the ranks now." Starting each October, Cassady rehearses for the Christmas Spectacular from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. six days a week. Once the two to four daily performances begin the day after Thanksgiving, however, she gets to spend all morning with the children. She often takes them to the park or out for a run in the jogging stroller. She also likes to prepare their meals—spinach manicotti is her son's favorite. The theater is closed on Mondays, so Cassady doesn't perform. She calls it her do-nothing day and refuses to run a single errand, so that she can be with the kids. On nights that she's performing, her husband usually takes over evening child care and puts the children to bed. Cassady arrives home at around 11:00 p.m. from a Rockettes show, makes a beeline for the children's bedrooms and kisses them while they sleep. Then James will pour her a glass of wine and make her something to eat. "It's one of the few times we get to connect and talk," she says. Her happiest times are when her work and home lives come together, as they do when James brings the children to see her perform her high-kicking routines. Sometimes she can even hear Jac shouting from the audience, "That's my mommy! That's my mommy!" Cassady explains, "It's incredibly special to have my children watching me onstage—watching their mommy work. I love my work because I get to make so many people and families happy. And it's even greater when my own family gets to share in that happiness, too."
Stick to the routine. I have my family on a schedule. They know what to expect—with few surprises—and that takes a lot of pressure off everyone. Dance to your own beat. I like to create our own special family traditions like making spinach manicotti. It makes me feel good when I see my family enjoying what I've enjoyed cooking for them. Exercise. No matter how busy I am, I find time to squeeze in a workout to keep my stress level manageable—and to help me fit into my Rockette costume!