At 5' 10.5", Sara Michelle Murawski stands taller than most people, let alone most ballerinas. As a student, Murawski was always told her height was a positive thing, and that elongated lines are what ballet is all about. But in the professional world in the U.S., she encountered a totally different mentality. Her story went viral last December, when she was fired from Pennsylvania Ballet for being "too tall." After a devastating few months, Murawski was the first principal signed to the new American National Ballet, a Charleston, SC, company whose mission is to celebrate dancer diversity. Here, she tells her story. —Courtney Bowers
Growing Up Tall
Even as a young ballet student, I was already quite lanky—all legs and limbs, and no torso. When I was 15 (and already 5' 9") I discovered The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, PA. Training there was probably one of the most influential parts of my life, because they embrace the beauty of all dancers. My teachers taught me that being tall was a good thing, and I started to accept my height.
Building a Career
At 17 years old, I started in the corps de ballet at Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany. I already knew that
I should probably be dancing in Europe—European companies tend to be more open-minded about height. I didn't even audition in the U.S. At the time, Dresden had some very tall dancers in the company—some of them even taller than me! Later, I went to dance with Slovak National Ballet, where I was able to perform principal roles in full-length ballets with a principal male dancer who was about 6' 5".
Heading Back Stateside
While I was at Slovak National Ballet, Ángel Corella, the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet, reached out and offered me a principal contract with his company. I was elated because I grew up in Philadelphia at The Rock, so it was like home to me. I was very grateful and humbled.
I started my first season in August 2016, and everything seemed great. I was getting positive attention for roles not even meant to be danced by tall girls. When I danced the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, I had so many moms with children at the school come up to me and say things like, "You're breaking the mold!" It wasn't just about me—it was about future generations, too.
I found out my contract wasn't going to be renewed that December, right before my last performance of The Nutcracker. I was devastated. It was incredibly hard to go onstage right after being told that—I was crying my makeup off in the wings. I felt lost, scared, alone, and unwanted. Even though it was difficult, I finished out the whole season, which ended this past May.
Some social media posts and an article about my firing went viral, and the public outcry saved me. I even had some big dance names write to me personally. It was the thing that made me believe in humanity and dance again. So many dancers in this country share and understand my frustrations.
Breaking the Mold
During one of my lowest days, American National Ballet sent me the kindest, most supportive message on Instagram. ANB is a new company in Charleston, SC, whose mission is to highlight diversity and to give dancers who may be different a chance to shine.
I visited Charleston a few weeks after talking to them on the phone and fell in love with the city, and with what ANB is doing. It's all long overdue. I was the first principal dancer to sign on, and I'll also serve as the visionary assistant to the artistic director.
I'm so excited to be working with ANB. People want this kind of change in the dance world. At ANB they're after real artists. And they're going to get better dancers that way. To all the tall, hopeful dancers out there: Please carry your height with pride and joy.
A version of this story appeared in the October 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "A Tall Tale."