I recently reached out to Sara Mearns, principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet after I read an article about her own experience with a back injury. Today I’m sharing with you the interview she very graciously completed for me. She offers sound advice for dancers dealing with an injury and is setting a great example for all dancers in the field.
Dance injuries seem like an inevitable part of a dancer’s life. The statistics show that 80% of dancers sustain a performance hindering injury each year. While I am a huge advocate of prevention, the reality is that you may find yourself injured during this dance season. So what do you do then? Here’s Sara’s story.
What type of dance injury did you experience? What was the cause?
Sara Mearns: I have had many many injuries that have taken me from the stage. 2 severe muscular back injuries, multiple sprained ankles, dozens of strains in the calf, hamstring, and hip, cortisone shots in my foot, a dropped metatarsal which resulted in a stone bruise, multiple neck injuries, and this is just to name a few. The cause is that I am an athlete who works 6 days a week for 8 hours a day, constantly pushing my body to the limit, and I have been doing that for 27 years. I think considering that, I am doing pretty well!
How did your injury affect you as a dancer both mentally and physically?
Sara Mearns: Each injury is different obviously based on if it’s muscular, tendon, bone, or stress. They all have very different recovery times and they all take a toll on you mentally. You work so hard every day to prevent thing from happening but the body is not a machine, so things break down. A big injury can affect you mentally just as much as a small injury that stays around for a very long time. Every day is a struggle, and mentally you become very tough. But you also become very grateful for the life that you have and the body you have. What we are doing with our bodies is not normal, so you have to give it credit.
How did you approach your recovery?
Sara Mearns: You listen to your body. You can’t rush recovery. You also have to find the right person to help you heal. Whether that be personal or professional. Your body cannot heal until your mind is calm. You have to forgive yourself and not blame yourself for your injury. And you go with your gut. The human body is smartest thing on the planet and it will never lie. So listen to it.
What was your motivation to heal?
Sara Mearns: To perform again.
What was the key to your recovery and return to dance?
Sara Mearns: I found a chiropractor that saw my body for what it is, and wasn’t mystified by it. It was all “at the right place, right time” sort of thing. I do believe in “if it’s supposed to happen, it will” and I was supposed to somehow be given this gift, and he healed me. I will never understand or question how it came to be because it doesn’t matter at this point. I will always be grateful.
How did this experience affect your training routine?
Sara Mearns: My body comes first. I will sacrifice anything for it. This life and art form is a gift and if I don’t take care of my body, it can be taken away in a blink of an eye. If anyone knows me, they know that and respect that. Not many people can say, ” I am a ballerina with the New York City Ballet”, and I get to.
Keeping my body loose and strong is all that matters. Everything else will fall into place. I stretch and roll out every morning for 45 minutes and that’s before I take class every day for an hour. Then I rehearse for 6 Hours and then I go to PT for an hour then I perform, then I go home and do more PT for an hour while I’m eating dinner. It’s a non-stop cycle but I’m healthy.
What is the single most important thing you learned from this experience?
Sara Mearns: Injuries are a gift. They make you reset and take a breath. You don’t see that in all the emotions that come with the pain and suffering, but in the aftermath, it’s all a gift. You become a stronger, healthier, more well-rounded dancer. It brings you back to reality and what’s really true which can be eye opening at first. But it’s all good.
What is your advice for dancers who are currently experiencing injuries?
Sara Mearns: DO NOT RUSH your recovery. If you come back too early, your body will re injure and you possibly might never recover. Your body is smarter then you. Just realize that, and it will be fine. Listen to your PT, listen to your closest friends who respect and understand your situation. Time is on your side when you are recovering. And everyone is different, don’t think you are weaker or not as good if someone recovers faster. Just focus on you.
What advice do you have for young dancers when it comes to taking care of their bodies? Do you recommend any strategies for injury prevention?
Sara Mearns: Don’t overdo or exhaust your body. I always say, stop while you’re ahead. Injuries most of the time happen when you have past the point of strength. Strength building and over doing it are too different things. Listen to your teachers. Speak up if something is hurting. Don’t hide the pain.
Sara Mearns, a principal with New York City Ballet, began her training in Columbia, South Carolina. Mearns is known for her roles in Swan Lake, Balanchine’s Diamonds and Walpurgisnacht. She has worked with famed choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, Benjamin Millipied, Susan Stroman, Kim Brandstrup and Joshua Bergasse. In 2014, Sara Mearns was signed by Cole Haan to collaborate on a capsule collection of footwear inspired by the studio-to-street lifestyle of a City Ballet dancer. www.saramearns.com