Your Body: Working Out With Sara Mearns
The NYCB principal uses cross-training to lengthen and support her body without wearing it out.
Mearns, here in Allegro Brillante, starts her warm-up with a hot shower. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
A few years ago, Sara Mearns’ weeks were packed with gym visits and Gyrotonic training. But as her schedule at New York City Ballet became more intense, she found the additional strength training only made her asymmetrical body (Mearns’ spine has both a scoliosis curve and a twist) tighter and more muscle-bound. Then, after landing from a jump during rehearsal in 2012, she severely strained the back muscles on the right side of her body. It took eight months for her to fully recover, and the jarring injury forced her to pay more attention to the very particular needs of her own body.
“Ever since my back injury, I had to stop doing all that,” Mearns says of her intense cross-training regimen. “Through physical therapy I developed my own daily ritual of preparation and stretching.”
Her 45-minute warm-up now consists mostly of rolling out and stretching, though she also does standard core exercises to make sure her back remains supported. After a hot shower, she spends 15 minutes on the roller, focusing on her trigger points. Once she’s loosened up, she performs a series of stretches to target her psoas, glutes, hamstrings and back. “I have to lengthen those things before the day starts,” explains Mearns, “and then I return to them continually throughout the day on my breaks.”
But Mearns is quick to point out that she is not doing the kind of extreme overstretching that strains the joints. When she puts her leg on the barre, she keeps it no higher than 90 degrees and adds in a side cambré to get at her quadratus lumborum muscle in her lower back which sometimes gets tight. During lunging psoas stretches, she also makes sure to perform them both turned in and turned out. “You get weak if you only stretch one way,” says Mearns, who has learned to complement instead of compound the demands of her ballet career. When she began private Gyrotonic training five years ago, her repertoire wasn’t as demanding. “We would practice barre together and talk about how to be grounded, how to stand, where my shoulders should be,” says Mearns, “and I still think about all those things I learned. I just don’t do it as a separate workout.”
Fueling for Performance
“I’m not into big meals or overly sweet stuff—it just makes me thirsty and shaky,” says Mearns, who instead opts for cashews, Greek yogurt and bananas pre-show and saves her dinner of veggies, pasta and protein for post-curtain.
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Psoas Stretching, Two Ways
The psoas is one of the primary hip-flexor muscles and in ballet, it is often overworked from daily battements and développés. Here are two ways Mearns lengthens this hard-to-stretch muscle.
Sit on the floor in a fourth position, with one leg turned out and bent at a 90-degree angle in front of you and the other leg completely turned-in and bent to the side. From this position, try to get the sitz bone of the back leg to be as heavy on the floor as the sitz bone of the front leg.
Take a lunge stance with one foot forward and one back. Bend your front knee so that it is above your ankle and press your back foot into the floor. Focus on lengthening the tailbone down and lifting the front of the hips up. Mearns suggests trying this with the back leg turned in, as well as with a slight turnout.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.