Sara Mearns (31) is New York City Ballet’s boldest ballerina. A passionate, intense dancer, she started dancing at 3 and starred in Swan Lake when she was only 19. But instead of resting on her laurels, Sara has kept challenging herself with daring projects, from a collaboration with hip-hop dancers to a leading role in a Broadway show. I talked with the fierce Swan Queen about sacrifices, body confidence, and how to turn pain into gain. “I’m not the typical skinny, tall, long-neck kind of ballerina.”
Marlies: You describe dancing as ‘expressing yourself through movement’. Do you remember the moment that you realized that this was your calling?
Sara: I started when I was 3 years old and dancing was really the only thing I knew. Then, when I turned 12, my ballet teacher passed away and her studio had to close. My mom found a school in another city, so for a year, she would drive me to class, an hour and half each way, 6 days a week. As a ballet dancer, you have to decide at a young age if this is going to be your career. And from that moment on, you have to put dance first, and pretty much sacrifice everything else in your life.
Marlies: That reminds me so much of the muse for my current collection: Queen Elizabeth. An incredibly courageous woman who made tremendous sacrifices for what she believed in. I think a lot of young people have dreams, but they forget that there are ALWAYS sacrifices.
Sara: I agree! That’s why determination, courage and self-discipline have always been hugely important to me. No one else is going to do it for you. It’s just you. I was actually never at the top of my class. So when I wanted to be admitted into the School of American Ballet in New York, I had to work from the bottom up. I had to sacrifice friendships. I basically had to beg! But when I did finally make it, I was extra grateful: I had worked very, very hard for it.
Marlies: And then, at only 19, you were selected from the corps de ballet to perform the role of Swan Queen in ‘Swan Lake’…
Sara: Yes, I was so young! I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect but my director wanted to see if I had the potential. And I guess I showed that I did! But although that is almost 12 years ago, I still feel I have to prove myself every time I step on stage. It’s a daily struggle for me. Am I good enough for this role? Am I good enough for this profession? But I have accepted that as part of wanting to be the best artist I can possibly be.
Marlies: You once said that dancing is like oxygen for you. What was it like to not dance for 8 months when you suffered a back injury in 2012?
Sara: Well, the first 6 months were pretty devastating; I really didn’t think I would ever dance again. But then I started living what you could call a ‘normal life’. I was meeting people, going out with friends. And now, I will never take another minute of dancing for granted. Because I realize that anything can be taken away from you at any moment.
Marlies: You do a lot of modeling and your body is a very important tool for you. Yet I never get the impression that you are preoccupied with how you look; you always come across very strong and authentic. With my designs, I want to motivate women to develop exactly that kind of self-confidence. How did you reach that point?
Sara: To be honest, I still struggle with it sometimes! I’m not the typical skinny, tall, long-neck kind of ballerina. I am womanly. I have a lot of muscle. No one else looks like me; this is a new look for a ballerina. But I tell myself this: if I am strong, and do a great job dancing, then I have nothing to be self-conscious about.
Marlies: Yes! Very often when we look in the mirror, we only see the way other people might perceive us, and we find many things to be insecure about. But when we learn to use our talents, we will be able to see so much to be proud of in our reflection! That is why I encourage women to follow their dreams and dare to grow. What is your most important piece of advice for women?
Sara: Don’t try to be someone else. In ballet school, there was always someone with better feet or a better body. But they didn’t have my artistry, drive or personality! I tell young dancers: be YOU, work hard! There is so much competition out there, if you start looking the same as everybody else, no one is going to be able to pick you out!
Marlies: Be your unique you; I love that! There is a cliché that professional dancers having to sacrifice their personal happiness for their careers. Yet you seem to have it all: the gorgeous fiancé, the dogs, the apartment.
Sara: I actually took a long time to get there! And in a way, I have my injury to thank for it; that is when my life finally opened up and I met my fiancé. He is a Broadway choreographer, so he’s not directly in my world but he knows exactly what I do. And I know what he does. And we respect each other’s schedules and drive. I have been through many relationships in my life, but I had to first emotionally grow up to understand that this is what I needed: a ‘grown ass’ man who is not a child anymore. And I feel insanely lucky!
Marlies: I think you deserve it all, Sara! Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring story!
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