Meet the Ballerina Who's Not Letting Her Height Get in the Way of Her Dancing
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.
Murawski with dancer David Marks (photo by Sloviter, courtesy Murawski)
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.
Murawski as the Fairy Godmother in Pennsylvania Ballet's "Cinderella" (photo by Alexander Izilaev, courtesy Murawski)
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."
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
Daphne Lee is a queen, and not just in the "OMG Girl Boss Alert" sense of the word. She's an actual queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Black USA in August, she's been doing double duty as she continues to dance with the Memphis based dance company, Collage Dance Collective. Lee's new title has given her the means to encourage other black girls and boys to pursue their dreams, while also pursuing dreams of her own. The scholarship money awarded with the pageant title will assist her as she earns a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University.
When a choreographer finds a composer whose music truly inspires her, it can feel like a match made in dance heaven. Some choreographers work with the same composers so frequently that they become known for their partnerships. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, for example, has tapped composer Sufjan Stevens numerous times (last spring, the two premiered The Decalogue at NYCB, to rave reviews); L.A. Dance Project's Benjamin Millepied's working relationship with composer Nico Muhly has spanned a decade and two continents; and when tap dancer Michelle Dorrance premiered the first-ever Works & Process Rotunda Project, a site-specific work for New York City's Guggenheim Museum, last year, percussionist Nicholas Van Young was by her side as an equal partner. Successful collaborations require compatibility between artists, direct and honest communication, and flexible, open minds. But when the stars align, working with a composer can be extremely rewarding.
For ballerinas, it's the dream role to end all dream roles: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the type of part dancers spend years preparing for and whole careers perfecting. And it's a role that New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck never thought she'd dance. Though Peck is one of the world's preeminent ballerinas, her short stature made Odette/Odile, typically performed by longer, leggier dancers, seem (almost literally) out of reach.
Then—surprise!—her name popped up on the cast list for NYCB's fall season run of Swan Lake.
Lani Dickinson's power, grace, and raw presence make her a standout with AXIS Dance Company, whose mission is to change the face of dance and disability by featuring a mix of disabled and non-disabled performers. Born in China, Dickinson was adopted by an American couple and started dancing at 8 in Towson, MD. She attended the Boston Ballet School for two summers, studied at the Idyllwild Arts Academy for the last two years of high school, and graduated with a dance degree from Alonzo King LINES Ballet's BFA program with Dominican University of California. In 2015, she joined AXIS and won a Princess Grace Award. Catch her this month during AXIS Dance Company's 30th-anniversary season—and read on for The Dirt!