We met principal ballet dancer Sara Mearns after one of her rehearsals at the David H. Koch Theater in Manhattan. Sara is with the New York City Ballet. She worked her way up from being a member of the corps de ballet to principal dancer. She was great to talk to and so inspirational.
What dance school did you attend in South Carolina?
It was Calvert Brodie Dance School. The tap teacher was Miss Calvert and the ballet teacher was Miss Ann Brodie. A lot of professional dancers came out of that school. Stacy Calvert, who was in New York City Ballet, Ashley Tuttle, who was a principal in ABT. We did musical theater, lyrical, tap, jazz. I did tap competitions. And it was part of the bigger civic ballet company where there were four schools that came together, and we would do big productions like the “Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella,” twice a year. That school closed when I was 12 because Miss Ann Brodie passed away.
Do you like to live in New York City better than South Carolina?
Yes. I love living in New York and I don’t see myself moving back to South Carolina. I appreciate that’s where I came from, but New York has everything for me and I see this as my home now.
How did you come up with the designs in your Só Danca clothing collection?
For so many years, I had been wearing such terrible leotards. I would keep leotards much longer than I should have. And there would be holes in them. You put the safety pin in them, and they would get so thin because you wash them all the time. It was just terrible. I finally was like, all right, I think I want to do this because there were so many dancers already creating their own lines.
At first, I just don’t want to have to add my name into that because there’s just so many brands out there already that everybody’s wearing. Finally, I said yes, because I wanted my own leotards. I put everything in my leotards that I would want to wear that I would feel good. I don’t know about you but every day I feel different when I wake up. And I have a specific leotard that I want to wear on that day.
What age were you when you started pointe?
I was 7½. I know. It’s crazy, right? Looking back now that’s pretty insane. But I remember there were like four of us that were in the same class. We were the four cygnets in “Swan Lake.” And that was our first thing on pointe [ballet dancer performs on the tips of fully extended feet]. And I even remember the dance studio right now is like a wood floor. It was really small. And I was wearing Capezio Aerials. I think she did that for a couple of us because she, my teacher, saw that our feet were really strong and that we were ready for it. I don’t think she would have put us on pointe if we weren’t ready. I still do exercises because you need to keep the strength and as you get older you start like starting to fake things. Now I have to retrain myself to really do correct pliés and correct relevés. I don’t remember doing a recital in flat shoes because I was so young. I’ve never heard of anybody going on at 7½. Usually they said like age 11.
What was your favorite class you took?
I remember a musical theater class we did “Cats.” I think it’s because I couldn’t sing and everybody else could sing and like the white cat just danced. But that was really fun because you got to be a character. I really did love my tap classes. I really want to get back into tap because I think it teaches you rhythm and it teaches you musicality that you don’t get out of other things. I feel like the way I hear music is very different compared to other people because I can hear those beats in music and put it in ballet and use them musicality. That was really fun for me. But my one time in competition it was so embarrassing. We had blond wigs on, and my wig fell off. And I was just dancing around in a blond wig cap.
What advice would you give to young dancers who would like to be professionals?
I think this career is very tough mentally and physically. I think if you know you want to do it professionally, just make sure that you are like 200 percent in it. You see all these people around you that are so talented that may be better than you, you can’t let that get to you. I remember when I went to SAB (The School of American Ballet), I was not accepted into the winter term. They had me in the summer school, and they had not asked me to stay, but I showed them that I wanted to be there. I knew everybody else they had picked were so much better than me. And when I went to this winter course, I was in the bottom of the class. I was 16. But I knew if I just kept pushing and then a teacher saw me, and they saw something in me. And it like caught on like wildfire. If you just keep going and not focus on the fact that everybody else is better than you, you have something special that they don’t. Don’t get discouraged. I still do sometimes, but I try not to.
What is the most challenging role you have ever danced?
There’s so many. I look at a season like last season, by the fourth week I was like I can’t walk. Oh, my God, it was really hard. Well, what’s interesting is that Balanchine guys, a lot of them are not very long. But like “Allegro Brillante,” it’s14 minutes long. At the end of those 14 minutes, I feel like I’ve danced for an hour and I want to throw up. It’s so high energy, and it’s just the music is so big and the dancing is so big, they just like can’t hold back. I have to say that’s one of the hardest ballets, because every time I know I’m going to do it, I start getting a little sick. And I know it’s from nerves because I know that I’m going to get tired. I’m not nervous about the steps, I’m just nervous about how tired I’m going to get.
But then also “Swan Lake” is a different kind of hard because you have to be on for 2½ hours and you have to have the stamina. That’s sort of a different kind of a fatigue than tired. I think over the years I have sort of gotten used to that one because I know how to pace myself because I’ve done it so many times.
We think that dance is a sport. Do you think that dancers have to work harder than other athletes that do other sports?
That’s a good question. I think I’m among dancers we are starting to train like professional athletes. What we do, and how we have to train and how when we have to start so young that we are training like the people do in the Olympics. Other people say, well no, you’re not really athletes. All I know is that when I see a colleague of mine out there dancing like they do and jumping around the stage for hours, and having to look beautiful doing it — I was watching the NBA finals and they don’t have to look pretty. We have to be athletes and artists at the same time. We can’t make it look hard like we’re drenched and sweating, but we still have to like smile at the audience. Sometimes I don’t smile. I do think we are athletes because we have to train just as hard as they do. We’re very lucky that I hopefully will get into my 40s and still be dancing. I do consider what we do very athletic.
Is there any time that you didn’t want to dance, and you wanted to like give up?
No. Never. There was a very dark moment in my career when I had my back injury and I didn’t think I was going to dance again. But I think the universe works in a very interesting way that I had to have it taken away from me to understand and appreciate it. Everything happens for a reason, and you just have to go with it. But I never gave up on it, even in that darkest moment. Don’t give up if you love it.
How did it feel dancing as an apprentice and then when you moved up to a soloist and then to principal ballerina?
When you’re in the school and you get your apprenticeship, you are at the top of the school. You are the best in the class that year and they want you in the company. In June, you’re like, oh my God, it’s amazing. And then in October, you get your apprenticeship and you go into company class and you are back down at the very bottom. You walk into class and you see people standing at the bar and you’re like I’m not supposed to be here. It humbled me in a way that I never experienced before. My first year, it was a little hard for me mentally. I went home for three months. I remember coming back and that’s the time when we did have a fall season, but we had a very long layoff time. And our first thing back was the “Nutcracker.” But in the season after winter, it was “Swan Lake.” And then one season they were giving me all these parts and then the next season I was promoted to principal. I finally got there. It’s not a long time but because we have so much that goes on in New York State Ballet within a year, there’s so much that can happen and so many ups and downs that you can have in a year it’s just crazy. So it felt like 10 years for me but it was only like four years.
Sam Carrell and Joan MacNaughton’s dancers, Leggz Ltd. Dance, Rockville Centre