Sara Mearns: Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet
Athletes don't just score touchdowns, volley, and slam dunk; they can curtsy, leap and pirouette too. When Sara Mearns, the principal ballerina of New York City Ballet, sat with us and shared her training schedule, it became abundantly clear that dancers— especially those of her caliber—work at Olympic levels on their craft. But beyond being in awe of her 6-hour workouts, we were also inspired by her thoughtful evolution from a one track-minded twenty-something, to an in-love, wellness-seeking and mindful grown woman. Principal ballerina may mean she's peak dancer, but it's clear there's no slowing down for this dancing queen; read on to learn her beauty secrets and body wisdom.
Can you please share your journey of becoming a young dancer to now-- as a principal ballerina of New York City Ballet?
My journey began almost 28 years ago when I was 3 years old in Columbia SC, and my introduction to ballet was far from love at first sight! My mom enrolled me in dance when I was 3 years old and I cried my way through the entire experience. From there, something clicked and I truly grew to love dance and went on to try everything from tap and jazz to musical theater and competitions. When I was 12, my first ballet teacher passed away causing my studio to close. In response, my mom discovered a studio about 1.5 hours away in Charlotte, NC with Patti McBride, the legendary principal ballerina from the 1960’s. We drove there everyday for about a year until I had to leave and found myself practicing in the studio at our home that my uncle had built for me.
In the following year, I continued to practice dance at a boarding arts school in South Carolina and that summer I attended the School of American Ballet for the fourth year in a row. By the end of the program, I had to make the difficult decision to choose to stay for the year or go back home and most likely stop dancing. With that said, I took a leap of faith and made the ask to stay on and I was accepted into the program. I honestly don't believe I would be here today if I hadn't made that very dramatic, life-changing choice.
For two years, I continued at the school with lots of ups and downs, including being at the back of the class initially. In my second year, I was recognized for my participation in a program in San Francisco and accepted into an apprenticeship with New York City Ballet in 2003. It only takes one person to notice your talent to ignite your career!
During my apprenticeship, I had many ups and downs, which inevitably left me feeling lost with some weight issues. In ballet, you can go from being at the top of the class to the bottom of a world class company in a day. I ended up needing to take 3 months off in my second year for not meeting standards. Nevertheless, I returned for Nutcracker in the winter of 2005, and mid way through I found myself learning Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Three weeks later I was performing it and 2 months later I was promoted to soloist, and two years later I was promoted to principal, and the rest is history!
I have been principal ballerina for 9 years now, and I am so grateful for the amazing opportunities that have entered my life because of my position with New York City Ballet, including my recent partnership with Cole Haan. I've always dreamed of collaborating with a legacy brand like Cole Haan and it was a match made in heaven for me. I'm also now working with SoDanca to design dancewear and high performance warm up gear.
What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?
A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don't usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day.
Do you have any rituals you practice for morning and/or night?
Ballet is a such an extreme physical career with a lot of stress and pain, and in response you develop rituals that help heal the body and get you through the endless hours of dancing. I've had many foot, leg, and back injuries that I'm constantly thinking about my footwear and how I'm supported from the ground up. I actually can't walk barefoot anymore, so the first thing I have to do in the morning is put on my Cole Haan ZERØGRAND sandal before even getting out of bed! They are like walking on pillows, and the morning is definitely the most painful part of the day for me. As mentioned, hot showers and stretching are huge morning rituals for me. At night, I take epsom salt baths, ice whatever is hurting, then rub Voltaren cream on my muscles. I also put Manuka honey on my face for about 20 minutes while I'm eating because the intense performance makeup can dry out my skin so badly. I also always take 1000mg of magnesium and 4 Advil before going to bed, to help with all my inflammation.
What about beauty products you swear by?
I'm starting to focus on taking care of my skin and eating better, which is an ongoing journey! I'm currently using Tracie Martyn Face Re-sculpting Cream, which is doing wonders for my skin. I also only wash my face with Cetaphil. If I put makeup on during the day or for a cocktail party, I use the Laura Mercier Pink Mosaic Shimmer Block and Lip Plumper in Bronzed Berry, with some L'Oréal Voluminous Mascara.
What do you typically pack in your Gym Bag for theatre?
During performance season, I typically pack my dressing room with anything and everything I could possibly need in terms of clothing, cosmetics, physical therapy, food, and even sleeping! It's like my home away from home! But my gym bag is also like a mini drug store. I probably have at least 3 pairs of point shoes, flat ballet shoes, my Cole Haan StudiøGrand Knit Cross-Strap Sneakers (I never walk around barefoot), leg warmers, tiger balm patches, calf compression sleeves, my HyperIce Foam Roller, a comfy shirt, my fleece onesie, a zip jacket for an extra layer of warmth, gum, chapstick, Fiji Water, cashews. It's a lot.
What are some wellness rituals you're into of the moment?
I would say practicing self-care and taking time for yourself is huge. I can get so stressed at the theater and stepping away, taking a moment to regain clarity and clear your mind is key. I prioritize hydration and drink about 2 liters of water a day. Eating a healthy diet, lots of vegetables and good protein. My body just reacts and performs better when I focus on nutrition and consistently eat healthy. While they might not be crazes, I consider them to be things I prioritize to survive in this crazy world.
How do you feel that your career as a professional ballerina has informed the way you think and feel about your body?
Ballet dancers are considered top athletes, at the level of Olympic competitors, bull fighters, and beyond. Basically our daily life revolves around our body. We consider our body to be a sacred temple that needs and deserves the utmost care and devotion--at least that's how I feel. We have to realize that we’re not machines, so the more we listen to the body, the longer it can sustain such an intense physical career. I have definitely had my share of injuries ranging from very serious to ones where I can still perform, but all of them inform me of how my body works and what I need to do to recover. In my early-to-mid twenties, I wasn’t as in tune with the important balance between work and rest. I have since learned my lesson many times over, and everyone knows that my body comes first when it comes to my daily routine. I have a check list in my head of what I need to do and what parts of my body are hurting and what feels good. I hope to dance into my late 40's, so I have a long way to go! I also don't judge my body anymore. I used to hate certain aspects of my body or think I wasn't good enough, but when I turned 30, somehow those worries and unneeded negativities melted away. I made a conscious decision to accept myself, and to enjoy the moment I'm in. To embrace who I've become.
Ballet is known for being an intense sport, and dancers have to devote their entire lives to the art-- how do you choose to find balance in your life?
Finding a true balance in your life takes maturity and an intelligence that takes time to understand. I was absolutely horrible in my twenties when it came to recognizing what I needed personally and how to leave work at the theater. I lived in a bubble, thinking that is what I needed to do in order to succeed. It had a sort of snowball effect that led me to a very dark and lonely place that inevitably led to injury. At one point, I thought I wasn't ever going to dance again. Once you hit rock bottom and feel like your life as you know it will be taken away from you, it’s a sign from the universe telling you to wake up. I knew a change needed to happen, and I decided to listen. I always took everything for granted in my earlier years, and decided to focus on gratitude moving forward. I now never step foot on stage without thanking the people who got me there. I'm living in the moment now and approaching life one day at a time. During that very dark time, I had to reinvent myself. I found a balance between dance and life. I truly believe everything happens for a reason, and right as I was coming back to myself, I met my fiancée. He literally turned my whole life around. If we had met at any other moment in our lives, we wouldn't have ended up together. He brought the balance to my life. He turned me into the true, honest person I always wanted to be. His generosity and love has allowed me to open up and have a full life. In a crazy way, dance brought me to this place of balance. I have time and space to do so many things at once and not get overwhelmed and stressed out. For instance, my partnership with Cole Haan is something I dreamt of and it's happening! I am so incredibly lucky that a huge company would take such a devoted interested in dance and celebrate the beauty of it. The balance I have now has allowed many doors to open for me that 5 years ago I couldn't have imagined.
What has dance taught you about life, and what is your favorite thing about ballet?
Dance has taught me many things throughout the almost 3 decades I've been doing it. To narrow it down, I would say it has taught me to be compassionate and generous to others, live in the moment, and not take anything for granted. It has taught me to keep an open mind and learn how to collaborate. All these attributes translate to real life. To me, dance is the most beautiful thing you can ever witness and be part of, and the fact that I get to live it everyday is an honor and gift.
What's the biggest myth about ballerinas that she wants to dispel?
The biggest myth is that we don't eat! It’s crazy that people think we can practice and perform for sometimes 8-10 hours a day and not eat! While I don’t go home and eat a whole pizza or ice cream, I eat balanced meals to keep myself in peak condition. While not a myth about ballet, many people might not realize that high heels actually hurt worse then pointe shoes. I could stand all day in pointe shoes and be fine, but 30 minutes in high heels will cripple me.
We tie everything with this idea of legacy and what you want to leave behind, what you want your mark to be, this greater idea for life. Can you tell us what you want your legacy to be?
I looked up the definition of legacy and the first word that came up was "gift". My entire career I've felt I've been given this gift to not only dance, but become an expression of emotion and music in a single moment of time that only happens once. This career is so precious -- no performance is ever the same, no step is ever repeated the same. Another really important gift I have realized is never really knowing what my true talent and impact is. I feel I am doing something special when I step out on stage, but most of the time I don't think I am doing the art form justice. The most special moment is when I become one with the music and audience. For that short brief moment, we are all transported to an otherworldly place that only the ones witnessing can imagine. So I guess what I would hope my legacy to be is that I did the extraordinary life changing art form of dance, justice.