Sara Mearns was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and began dancing at the age of three with Ann Brodie at the Calvert-Brodie School of Dance. At the age of 13, Ms. Mearns trained with Patricia McBride at Dance Place, the School of North Carolina Dance Theatre, in Charlotte. She continued her studies at age 14 with Stanislav Issaev at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. Ms. Mearns entered the School of American Ballet (SAB) full time in the fall of 2001. In the fall of 2003, Ms. Mearns became an apprentice with New York City Ballet and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a principal dancer in 2008.
Q. Yesterday, I was with some young dancers and i asked them for some questions for you. These first four questions are from them.–How do you stay positive in the world of ballet?
t’s a very long journey. You start when you’re very young and everything is exciting. It’s new, and nothing’s really negative. I had a very positive experience, growing up in the dance world and at my studio. When I came to New York, obviously, the dynamic changed. It got more serious and you could say I had to put my game face on. I had some really hard times when I first got in the company, and it was a struggle, but you have to think about the larger picture. You can’t just think about somebody saying or thinking this or that, or putting you down. It’s not about that. It’s about why you wanted to start dancing in the first place. You have to think about what inspires you and why you’re dancing. Any art form is hard to succeed in. It doesn’t matter if it’s painting, writing, singing, opera. I’m not talking about Hollywood or any of that. I’m talking about the visual arts. It’s always hard. You have to remember the reasons why you started, and that will keep you positive during the days where it’s tough in the studios and nothing’s working out, or you had a bad show. You have to think long term about how you want to remember your career or your dance experience.
Q. Second question: What steps should a young dancer take in order to become a professional? Should they do competitions? Go to a certain ballet school?
First of all, no, you don’t have to do competitions. Actually, when I was younger, I did some tap competitions just because our teachers wanted us to perform in front of people and get to know how to be on stage and get rid of those nerves. We didn’t do it to win. That’s definitely not the reason we did competitions. I did a competition here, the YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix), and I did that for the same reason: I knew I wasn’t going to win. I was very far from the top, and I actually got cut in the second round. So, you definitely don’t need to do those. But I do recommend, if your teachers want you to, maybe go to some competitions and get the performance experience because at such a young age it’s not often that you get to perform in front of such a big house. So for that, yes, I recommend it.
For schools, when you’re 12 or 13, you need to start looking at bigger schools across the country. You need to get away from your home town, unfortunately, and really research where you want to go as well as which technique you want to follow. Obviously, everyone knows the larger companies. Most of them have schools attached to them, either a summer program or a year round school. That’s definitely the route you want to go if you want to be a professional ballet dancer in a top company. Now, you may go to one of those schools and not get into a top company, but it’s still helpful because all of the other companies from around the country come and audition students at those major schools. So going to one of those major schools is key to getting into a big company because a lot of the other companies don’t even hold mass auditions. They all get their members from the schools.
Q. Third question. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
To be honest, I’m not so strict with myself about what I have to do before a show, or what order I do things. That would stress me out. I see other people who have that, and it stresses me out just seeing them. I’m kind of very low key and laid back before a show. But there is one thing—I have to find my own name on the call sheet, and I have to personally sign my name on that sheet. I know other people sign each other in, but I always have to do it myself. Other than that, it’s really just preparing for the show, getting into that head space, and trying to stay positive, as well as having good energy.
Q. This is their last question—Ballet can be expensive. Do you have any tips for young dancers on a tight budget? Any advice for shoes, lessons, things like that?
Growing up, it’s not you paying. It’s your parents. I never knew about those kinds of things. But for clothes and stuff, the best thing to do is to get good leotards and keep wearing them. You don’t have to keep getting new leotards. You should keep the leotards you have, and make sure you wash them properly, so they don’t get worn out, and make sure you take care of your tights by not getting any holes in them. You really need to take care of those things, because they wear out very quickly if you don’t.
For shoes, you need to make sure you find the pair, brand, or maker that fits your foot. If you have the wrong shoe, it will die very fast. You will go through them very fast, because they’re not the right shoe for your foot–not the right strength or shape. You really need to research carefully and try on a bunch of pairs to find out what’s the right one for you. You don’t want to keep going through a pair every week. I don’t remember exactly how many pairs I’d go through, but I do remember getting a box of 8 pairs of shoes, and being very excited about that. And I did make sure that I kept really good care of them. You need to make sure you air dry your shoes after a day of work in them, because the sweat kills your shoes. So, make sure, after a day of wearing them, that you keep them out of your dance bag. Also, a way to keep the tip very hard is to get glue. Jet glue is the major brand that you can use in the tip of your shoe.
Dance clothes and dance wear is expensive. It just is. You don’t have to have the hippest things out there. You just need to have very pretty leotards that show you off very well, and make sure that you keep really good care of them.
Q. You’ve talked about how you followed your older brother into ballet. Where is he now, and what is he doing?
Actually, I was the one who started first. There are lots of brothers of little girls who are hanging around the studios, and studios always need guys, always. They kind of pulled him into it, and then he started tap, jazz, and ballet. So, yes, he actually went to New York first because he’s two and a half years older The SAB took him a year before me. Then he went professional, to PNB for two years, and then to Pennsylvania for four years. But now, he’s back in South Carolina. He went back to college and he’s working in the botanical gardens in South Carolina.
Q. You trained at various schools locally and at SAB. What stands out from each school?
You always hit a milestone with each phase you go though, especially when you’re younger. There’s always so much that’s happening. My first few years, it was my teacher Miss Ann Brodie who really worked me hard and taught me all the classical variations from a very young age and had me performing them in recital. She would give me lots of privates, and she was the one who told my mother that I had to go to New York. I was also doing tap and jazz and musical theater at such a young age, so I feel that helped me musically and made me very versatile. Unfortunately, my ballet teacher, Miss Ann, passed away when I was twelve. My mother researched and found that the best studio in the area was an hour and a half from our house in Charlotte, NC. My mom drove me every day, six days a week to take classes with Patricia McBride and that’s when I started learning all about Balanchine and his technique. She would tell us stories in class. She was just the loveliest person. That was a huge thing for me. I was thirteen, and I’ll never forget being in that class with her. It was such a lovely experience. Then, unfortunately, something happened in that studio, and we had to leave. I had a couple of months where I was without a studio. I had to give myself class in the basement of our house. My uncle had built a dance studio in the basement with a wood floor, mirrors, and a metal bar. I had to go downstairs to train every day. There were days I didn’t want to do it. I mean I was 13. Who wants to do that when you’re 13? That was a very rough time for my mom and I. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
After that, I went to the Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities in Greenville, SC. That was a good experience because they had academics and ballet. They had great studios. We got to perform the full lengths such as Coppelia at the end of the year, so that was really good. After that, I went to SAB. It was a long journey getting there. I spent four summers at SAB, and the final summer I asked if I could stay because there was nothing else for me in South Carolina. That was really my last option. I really don’t think I’d be dancing today if I hadn’t asked them to let me stay that fourth summer. They agreed, and I’m very thankful to all the teachers there for making that decision which began my New York journey.
Q. Summer school programs at the big ballet schools are often the entrance way to be invited to stay for their more important winter programs. How do you stand out at the summer school to increase your chances for being selected for the winter school program?
At SAB, the entire summer program is probably 250 kids. Last summer, I think they took 275, which is huge. Last year, I think they had to make 8 or 9 levels, because there were so many kids. My year there were only 6 levels. I started at level 2 when I was 12, but by my fourth year, I think I was level 5. You never know what the teachers will see in the students. There were some girls I just didn’t understand why the teachers gave them so much attention. The teachers are looking at the student for the long term. They’re actually thinking, “How well are these students going to do if we take them for the winter? And will they mature enough to make it into the company?” So, you can’t waste your time trying to judge who they’ll take or won’t take. You just have to dance yourself crazy in those classes. You can’t stand in the back of the class. You have to stand in the front. It doesn’t matter if the girl next to you has higher extension. You just have to try as hard as you can to do the best you can in each class. You can’t be shy in class. If the teacher corrects somebody else, you take that correction too. If they’re going across the floor, just move away from the other girls and leave them behind, because then you’ll stand out.
Q. At 12, 13, 14 years old, there are girls who are winning Olympic gold medals in gymnastics. But girls who take ballet become world class dancers at a much later age. What kind of development goes on between 12 and 18 or 19 years to make a girl into a top flight ballet dancer?
The girls that are winning golds now—they’re like 16 and 17, and unfortunately, they haven’t gone through puberty, but that’s beside the point. Your body matures. For woman, it’s a very crucial time from 12 to 18. Hormones start to kick in, and it can be very difficult. But it can also be a great time because your muscles start to develop in a very different way. It also depends on the training you get. If you’re going to a high end school where you have 2-3 classes a day, your muscles are going to be shaped and developed a certain way. Coming from a studio where you only have one class a day, that’s very different. That’s why these top schools are so important because you do have 2-3 classes a day, and you’re doing it 6 days a week. That’s where the strength happens. At SAB, all of our classes are on pointe. You are on pointe all the time. Your feet get that much stronger compared to the people who are in flat shoes. Your foot muscles and calves get so strong by the time you’re 17 or 18 and are in a company, you’re able to take on learning all the ballets you have to learn as an apprentice.
Q. At 18 you were in the corps of the New York City Ballet, and at 19 you were picked to perform the principal role in Swan Lake. Do have a sense of a major development mentally or physically that allowed you to make that big transition?
The year I got into the company as an apprentice was the centennial celebration, so they were performing 75 ballets in one season. That’s 9 weeks. Our job was to learn most of those ballets. Never to do them, but to be in the rehearsals and learn them and do them in the back. Obviously, your muscles and strength start to really grow because you’re always on the go, trying to learn or practice something. You have class in the morning, and you have rehearsal until 7 o’clock. During Nutcracker, you do all 50 shows of Nutcracker. I did Snow and Flowers in every single show. That’s 6 weeks of 50 shows. So, your body changes and strengthens. I always thought I was in the bottom of the class, and I didn’t see myself as one of the stronger apprentices when I got in. I had a pretty tough first year in the corps, but then I came back from the break, and the director started teaching Divertissment roles in Swan Lake, and I guess he saw that I was strong enough. And then there was a ballerina that was injured, so he took a chance on me. Now he tells me that that was my one chance to get thrown out there to see if I would sink or swim. And, obviously I did the job and impressed him, and I guess that was it.
Q. You mentioned how music is very important to you. How do you manage with these very complex musical numbers as opposed to, let’s say, a Tchaikovsky piece.
From the beginning when you’re brought into the company, you experience and watch all the ballets that are complex like that: Agon, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, Monumentum & Movements ;There is some funky stuff. I also do this ballet called Kammermusik No 2, which is the same kind of thing. You watch it on video, and you’re like, what are they counting? But you have ballet mistresses and masters who teach you the rhythm of these ballets, and once you learn it, you’re like “Oh, I get it”. After you’ve learned it, you hear what Balanchine heard in the music. And that’s why he was a genius. He took a piece of music, and found the rhythm in it and then he had the dancers show it. You feel so accomplished when you learn this type of piece. They’re very difficult. I remember this one year we were doing this ballet that I can’t remember the name of, but it was one of those very extreme ballets where the counts were all over the place. It was one the hardest pieces I think the corps ballet women have ever learned. For one day, the girls were in tears because it was so hard to count. They were so scared to go out on stage because they didn’t feel like they knew what they were doing. But they did it and got through it. It was an achievement. An accomplishment. After doing these kind of ballets for a while, it really becomes fun to do them because you can go all out. You find the rhythm and you get comfortable.
Q. One of your videos on your channel is about makeup. I assume you use different make-up for different ballets. Do you have a favorite kind of makeup? Did anyone teach you about stage makeup?
When I got into the company, there was this amazing makeup artist: Michael Avedon. He had been there for 20-30 years. He worked with Balanchine and Peter Martin. He basically taught me everything I know about stage makeup and character makeup, like what colors you need to use for certain ballets and certain lighting. He was a genius about what the face needs to look like. He would go out to the house seats and watch with binoculars to look at everyone’s faces to see what they looked like. He would always teach anybody that came in. He would always help them, and do anyone’s makeup who needed him. It was kind of like a work of art on your face. They were his paintings. It was just gorgeous. I would find myself doing makeup in the makeup room every day because he would help me. Talk to me. Tell me what colors and brands to use. Ballet stage makeup is definitely very different than the make-up for any other performing art. We have a lot more on our face. Ballet make-up needs a certain look. It’s very dramatic and I lean toward the more dramatic side rather than the simple side. I love to use color. It’s definitely a very different world, and you need someone to sit down and talk with you about it. We do have another makeup artist now who was Michael’s assistant. To me, it’s really fun to do your makeup. You can do anything you want. You can go crazy and let your imagination run wild sometimes. That’s what I love about it.
Q. Natalya Makarova. You talk a lot about her being your inspiration. What was it about her dancing that immediately struck you?
I grew up with her being my idol. I studied a tape of her when I was 10. I still have the VHS of her famous 1975 performance of Swan Lake at our theater. It’s probably the best performance she’s ever done. She was really “it” for me, and still is, for that role and many others. The totality is unlike anybody else. Nobody else can really compete with her in that department. Her attention to detail, her attention to acting…For her it wasn’t about the turns and the extension. It was really about the small things, and how she captured the audience and completely sucked them in. I think that’s the definition of a true artist, and a true live performing artist. The ability to step on stage, not do anything, and the audience is completely stuck on you. That’s what she did. She had this air about her that I’ve not seen in any other ballet dancer or ballerina ever. I idolized her, and when I do Swan Lake, every time, I watch her tape. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet her twice. I danced for her at the New York State Theater when I was in SAB, and they were honoring her, and I met her afterwards. It was a massive huge deal for me. When she got the Kennedy Center honor, I was able to be in the second row. It was huge. I got to see her afterwards, and she knew who I was, which was insane for me, because she’s the most famous ballerina in the world. I can’t believe she knew who I was. We talked about Swan Lake, and it was surreal. I’m glad I got to do that. I don’t think I would ever want it to be more than that. I want to keep her on that pedestal of me being in awe of her. I don’t want to destroy that. I don’t want to taint that. I just want to keep that what it is.
Q. I saw some of her tapes on Youtube and she looks very tall. Yet I read she’s actually less than 5 feet. Is there a technique for making a dancer making herself look taller?
She had very long legs and arms. Her limbs are very lean and muscular. You can look taller when you have those proportions. Of course, when you go on pointe, you look taller, anyway. And being on stage automatically adds inches. Also, the way they shot video back then. They shot from below which makes you look taller.
Q. You had a serious injury that took you out of ballet for 8 months. One reason you mention as a cause of your injury is because you were overworking. Yet I’ve always thought, when you become a principal dancer, you dance less. The corps dancers dance in every dance, and the principle dancers dance every three or four days. Where am I wrong here?
To be honest, when you become a principle dancer, I would say you don’t dance less. I can tell you some seasons I danced every show for two and a half weeks. And my repertoire is very, very hard ballets, And it is a different ballet every single night. So, the workload going into that is massive. Not only am I rehearsing all those ballets every day, but also performing at night. So, I’ve never worked as much in my life. It’s very different than what a corps dancer does. I mean yes, a corps dancer does do three ballets a night. They may not rehearse those ballets every day, but we all work very hard. It’s the type of work that is demanding on our legs, back, everything. I would say my workload probably tripled after I got promoted. So, that’s what happened. I got completely overworked. They don’t do that deliberately. It happens automatically just by being the dancer you are. People want to put you in their ballet. It’s a huge compliment, but you have to monitor yourself, so as you get older, you know how much you can take, how much your body can take, and what your rehearsal and performance schedule needs to be. So, that’s what happened to me with my last back injury, I was not thinking enough about myself and it went out one weekend. I had to rest and five people had to fill in for me. So, you have to learn from that, and say you can’t overwork yourself like that again. And even this season, I went through a calf thing. I strained my calf, and I’ve been dancing with it for the past 3 months, dancing hurt every day. I finally just said no, I can’t do this anymore. It’s going to get worse. It’s never going to get better if I keep dancing on it. So, I took myself out and missed 9 shows in a week and a half. So I still had a big workload. I can’t tell you how many people had to fill in for me. So, it’s a very delicate balance. No one else is going to figure it out for you because no one else has your body. Everyone’s body is very different with the amount that they can take, and how they dance. It’s a constant learning process.
Q. You’ve said your daily routine started with a class at Steps on Broadway, and that really surprised me. I figured the New York City Ballet wouldn’t want you taking classes at Steps on Broadway. Is it common for dancers to take classes outside of their own company?
When you become a professional, you have to do what’s right for your body. You have to do what’s best to start your day. If that means taking somebody else’s class, that’s what that means. If that means giving yourself class in the morning, then do that. If that means not even doing class in the morning, and just doing Pilates or Gyrotonics, or swimming, or whatever, that’s what you need to do. No one else has your schedule or knows what your body needs each day. And yes, New York City Ballet gives class every morning. You don’t have to take it, but recently, because my schedule is so busy and crazy and I have rehearsal literally right after class every day, I take class at the company. I can’t be going to another studio that takes 10 or 20 minutes to get to, and the same to get back to the theater and start rehearsing. It’s not like the ballet tells you where to take class, or what you have to do. We’re all adults. They can’t tell you what to do in that regard.
Q. Swan Lake has the bad swan and the good swan. Do you like getting into the two different psychologies?, How do you approach that?
It’s like how you approach any character in any kind of full length ballet. I’ve been doing Swan Lake for 10 years now. I’ve known the ballet since I was 10. It’s not difficult for me. It feels very right. If it were developed any other way where you just did one role, it wouldn’t make any sense to me. You have to go through all the emotions in that ballet all the way to the end to tell the story fully. You have to be in the position of both the white and black swan. I don’t know how else to explain it. If you were in the white swan mode for the entire two and a half hours, you wouldn’t tell the correct story at the end. You wouldn’t actually have the sadness and the vulnerability you need at the end because when you play the two swans you’re constantly with the prince. The black swan knows what she did to the prince. That’s why you feel the way you do at the end of the ballet. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s a genius setup, and unlike any other ballet.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about the influence of teachers on you. Have you tried teaching?
Yes, I have. I’ve taught some, and will be teaching 2 courses this summer between all my gigs and festivals. I’ll be teaching at home and in Connecticut. But it’s not a huge priority right now because my mind is so set in being in my career and performing. Obviously, teaching and giving back is a huge part of who you are as a ballerina and what you want to leave behind when you’re done. But I’m still going through my own issues and learning every day. I’m still trying to figure out myself. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to explain to people what they need to do, or how they need to approach a role because I’m still figuring that out every day in class and rehearsal. But teaching is an interesting process and it’s fun for me to be in a room with kids.
Q. You also model. Is that becoming a bigger part of your life?
Modeling started though the company. I started doing photo shoots for the ballet campaigns, and started meeting people outside the company, other photographers, and they asked me to do a shoot here and there. It’s very exciting and interesting to collaborate and make wonderful photographs because there’s so many interesting positions and things a dancer can do. It’s really fun if you can find a photographer that you love working with. For me, it’s Sarah Silver. She’s fantastic. Dance photography is difficult because you need to know exactly when the moment is going to happen. But if you find a photographer that is really in tune with you, you can really have a blast. It becomes really fun and easy. You get to wear great clothes and makeup and hair. It’s a really fun aspect of my life that I’m enjoying right now. I’m glad I get to experience all these shoots, especially with Cole Haan. We’re doing a photo shoot tomorrow for a new line of shoes that will be exciting.
Q. You also seem to be big into social networking: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. What are your favorites and what got you into it?
I got into it when I had my injury. A lot of young dancers reached out to me via my Facebook, and were trying to keep me inspired and ask me advice, so I just started getting into it, and it really kept me going, kept me positive. Instagram is probably my favorite. It’s fun to take pictures and document what you’re doing and show it. I love connecting with my followers that way. Twitter is fun as well. I follow major arts institutions and news programs. I just launched my new website that has all my videos, and pictures, and I’m going to start a new blog. I had a blog on the Huffington Post when I had my last back injury and that got a great response, and people are asking for it to come back again. So, I’m going to start a new blog on my website very soon. I think it’s a great way to connect with people, get information out there, and network.
Q. Some dancers are doing roles on Broadway. Any plans for non-ballet dancing?
My boyfriend is a choreographer. He just choreographed On the Town, and it got nominated for the Tonys. My world is very much involved in Broadway. It’s fun to see and experience all that. I don’t know if it’s right for me now because there’s so much happening for me in the ballet world. Ballet is very special to me, and the ballets that I get to do. I’m living my dream, and I’m dancing my dream roles. I don’t want to mess with that right now. It’s too precious. I think it could be something in the future. There are some cool projects that people have talked to me about that in time could happen. But right now, I’m pretty satisfied.
Q. Any new ballet projects you’d like to talk about?
There is a project that I’m starting to develop with some colleagues of mine. There’s not too many details right now but I can say it centers around woman choreographers and what that means to the ballet and dance world and why the major companies aren’t using women choreographers more. So, we want to explore that and work with some women choreographers. I have a residency at Jacob’s Pillow in the fall, and we’ll hopefully start that there. Everything else is New York City Ballet, dance festivals, and there isn’t much room to do or talk about much else.
Q. Any advice for young dancers?
It’s a very difficult profession. It’s not a profession you get into to make money. It’s something you have to seriously be connected to and committed 150%. You have bad times, good times, and you have to roll with it and not get discouraged. You meet people who are better than you. Everybody in my class was better than me. I can tell you that, honestly, right now. You can’t let that scare you. You can’t let that kill your confidence. You have to keep working hard on everything. You have to work on what you’re good at and really work on the things that you’re not good at. You may not get as good as the other girls right away but that’s okay, because you’re working twice as hard as they are. To this day, I’m still working on so many aspects of my technique and I’ll keep working on them until the day I retire because I know if I don’t, I’m not going to look as good as I want to. You just can’t get discouraged by everyone else around you, and don’t be competitive with anybody. That’s not going to get you anywhere. Just compete with yourself. Don’t worry about everybody else. Be nice to everybody. You always want to keep friends. Don’t ever make enemies. That won’t get you anywhere, either.
Q. Lots of dancers love inspirational quotes. Do you have any favorites?
There’s a saying I have on a photo in my apartment. It’s kind of long, but it says “Dancers work and live from the inside. They drive themselves constantly, producing a glow that lights not only themselves, but audience after audience. They personify life itself.”
photo credit: Erin Baiano Photography