Athlete Series: Meet Sara
Here’s a not-so-secret secret about me: I cry every single time I watch ballet.
I did ballet as a 3-year-old – as much as running around in a circle, limbs flailing, counts as “doing ballet.” Apparently, as can be expected from any stubborn and fiercely independent toddler, I told my mother I was no longer interested and wanted to quit after this short stint of glittered leotard glory.
I came back to ballet in my 30’s. As an adult, it was intimidating. The idea of putting on a leotard and pink tights and learning how to turn out and prance around with some level of grace took some courage.
And here’s something else: it is the most freeing experience of my life. I am hooked. I am addicted. If I could dance all day, I would.
Ballerinas, in my humble opinion, are the true embodiment of grace, agility, and strength. These men and women are athletes who make it look so easy.
So, when I had the opportunity to interview a professional ballerina as part of these athlete series – I jumped at the chance and was, admittedly, a bit star-struck!
- What’s Sara’s background as an athlete?
Sara is originally from Chicago and started dancing when she was 4 (like any proper ballerina to be) and kept at it. She took a few years off, went to photography school thinking she’d be making a career out of something different than being a professional dancer. But then, performance opportunities started cropping up, steadily and continually. Fast forward a few years and she’s living in the DMV and just turned 40 this summer and recently performed in New York at Climate Week. Sara isn’t shy about how hard your body works as a ballerina. It is strenuous training on your joints, your bones, your muscles. She cross-trains regularly, going to yoga and Pilates supplementing all her dancing with core-strengthening workouts.
Sara wants you to know that a dancer is very much an athlete. There are studies that ballet dancers are right below football players in terms of physicality. The impact may not be the same (bodies don’t exactly slam against each other in ballet), but in terms of knowing how to use your body: core, strength, balance, being a dancer is akin to being a 250-pound football player. How’s that for a visual?
People may not appreciate how truly strenuous dance is – that is the beauty, the challenge, and the art of it: making it look that ethereal and easy.
2. What was the most traumatizing injury Sara has ever endured? How long did it take her to recover?
Sara has endured her fair share of injuries to her feet and ankles (we all know pointe shoes aren’t exactly kind to our tootsies). She’s broken her 5th metatarsal which took 3 months to heal as opposed to 6 weeks because she couldn’t stay off it (had to pay the bills!). But, the worst injury she ever endured were bone chips lodged in her tendon, called Os Trigonum Syndrome (learn about her treatment HERE). It required a very specific surgery and though the surgery happened nearly 7 years ago, she’s still recovering. She regularly has to attend physical therapy to let her ankle know how where it is in space, to keep it stable, and strong.
3. What was Sara’s first experience with massage? What type?
When I asked Sara to go down memory lane with me on this, she laughed as she remembers going to a cheap spot when she was in Chicago, called The Pain Stop. They charge $1/minute, so $60/1 hour massage, $90/1.5 hour massage, and a bargain of $110/2 hour massage. It was a tough massage – you went in and got pounded and would be sore for a week. She thought that because it hurt during and after that it was “really working.” That, because it was so “hardcore,” it was the right approach.
Needless to say, Sara’s taste in massage has evolved as she’s become older and wiser and subsequently more in tune with what her body needs to continue dancing.
4. How has Ohana Wellness and/or therapeutic bodywork helped Sara maintain her athleticism?
Sara views getting regular therapeutic bodywork as a core part of her training as an athlete and as a dancer. She can intuit when she needs it. Her body will tell her when she’s worked herself enough and her at-home self-care routine and regimen has hit maximum efficacy.
Being in tune with her body and having a high-level of body awareness as an athlete, a dancer, and as a performer has helped her continue dancing well past what most people may perceive as “peak” performance age.
It made me reflect how often we think our self-care routines are enough or should be enough when at some point, inevitably our bodies need a professional whose sole focus is our body in that moment. How much better could our own self-care routines be with that interspersed?
5. What has massage done to help Sara with the mind aspect of being an athlete?
Sara admitted to me that she classifies herself as a fairly tense person (I knew I liked her immediately), she’s analytical, critical, and not what you would consider the most relaxed individual to be around. She finds that getting regular therapeutic bodywork has taught her how to breathe through things. To breathe through life, through everything that she’s doing whether it’s stretching to get ready for dance or doing complex choreography with lots of leaps and jumps.
Are you breathing through life?
Sara has learned that having a looseness and softness is a good thing – she’s increasingly using the right muscles while also staying strong in her postures and positions. You’ll often hear from ballet teachers “smile through the eyes,” “relax your face,” “allow your light to shine,” while holding a position so unnaturally difficult that to soften your facial expressions feels nearly impossible. To be simultaneously be strong and rooted and relaxed effortlessly takes practice, time, and maintenance.
6. What is Sara’s favorite type of therapeutic bodywork? Why?
As you can imagine, Sara’s done a lot of therapeutic bodywork. From Thai Massage to acupuncture to myofascial release (her current favorite), she’s explored (and continues to) different modes of bodywork.
She also does bikram yoga and practices vinyasa yoga for stability, flexibility, and spinal strength.
Sara’s current favorite – myofascial release – has taught her how to lean in to relaxation even more. It is a powerfully intensive therapy that requires you to truly let go of the tension in your body to reap maximum effectiveness and allow the therapist to get deep into where the tension lies.
7. What would Sara want pro athletes or non-pros to know about bodywork?
Imagine my surprise when Sara started telling me the same thing Marcus did (read HERE)!
Sara says, quite simple, if you’re going to use your body in any capacity, you have to take care of it. It’s not unlike a car, it requires regular maintenance and monitoring for that strange noise, that clicking, whether or not it’s running smoothly or a bit rough around the edges.
Sara has also said as she gets older she’s starting to be less of an extremist. The fine art of finding balance isn’t dissimilar to finding balance in ballet. This gravity defying sport requires both strength and grace, both flexibility and stability, both endurance and artistry. Sara lives her life constantly in these “and” statements and perhaps we can learn a lesson from her: embracing seemingly opposites may allow us to strike the balance for which we all are strive for day-to-day.
And, once in a while, it’s okay to set ourselves free by dancing our hearts out.