If ever there was a can-do dancer, it’s Megan Fairchild. At New York City Ballet, where she has been a principal dancer since 2005, she performs all the toughest ballets, the ones that are full of jumps, quick footwork, and pin-prick pointework. At a point in her career when most principals forego certain punishing roles like Dewdrop in “The Nutcracker”—all those jumps! so much speed!—she has no plans to take things easy on herself. In fact, when I caught up with her to talk about her new book The Ballerina Mindset (Penguin Life, December 2021), Fairchild was in the middle of Dewdrop rehearsals. “It’s so incredibly taxing,” she said of the role, “but honestly, I love it. It’s so freeing.”
Onstage, she gives the impression that nothing could faze her. But her book reveals that this unflappability has been hard-fought. Fairchild has struggled with anxiety, self-doubt, and the crush of external criticism. She discusses all of this, and more, with wit, openness, and a bracing straightforwardness in this slim, well-written volume of essay-like chapters, in which she confronts both the challenges and the rewards of being a dancer at one of the world’s great ballet companies. “I wrote this book for my younger self,” she told me, “when I would get so stressed out before a performance that I was just about ready to jump out the window.”
We spoke in early November.
You deal with some pretty intense subjects in your book, including anxiety, extreme stress, perfectionism, the fear of failure, and your relationship with food. And you write about them very directly, very honestly.
I didn’t want to shy away from anything. And I also feel that I’ve come to a really healthy resolution, based on what I’ve learned. This is what the book is really about. It’s not about saying that you can eat whatever you want and be a ballet dancer. That’s not reality. It’s about how to be your greatest athlete physically, you can’t go too far in one direction or the other. And on top of that, you have to take care of your mental health. It’s not just what you look like, it’s also how you’re doing inside and how all those things come together. It’s all about balance.
I love that you talk about these matters in such a matter-of fact way.
It’s true. I am incredibly matter-of-fact about things. And I’m not a good liar. I was in a “Nutcracker” rehearsal the other day, and for some reason, I was struggling. I had this dread of rehearsing it, even though I know I want to perform it. And I said out loud, “I may be smiling now, but that’s not what I’m feeling inside.” It’s something that I learned over time: how to acknowledge those feelings. When I was younger, I watched the older principals a lot, and it was in the moments when they were the most human that they became my heroes. I remember seeing Wendy [Whelan] order a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich the morning after we did a show and thinking, no way, she ordered something with grease in it. Or when a dancer’s family comes onstage when they retire. It’s those human moments that are inspiring.
At what point did you decide you wanted to write a book?
I never would have thought that I should do something like this, but when I went to Broadway [Fairchild performed the role of Ivy Smith in “On the Town” on Broadway for almost a year in 2014-2015] I noticed how different my experience as a ballet dancer was from what my cast-mates thought it was. They really thought I lived in a Center Stage kind of world. I found that really interesting. And I thought about all those young dancers who want to be professionals and have no idea what this industry is about. So I started a podcast, Ask Megan!, in order to have a platform to speak to young dancers.
My first editor at Penguin was training to run a marathon. She heard my podcast and said that the advice helped her train and that she thought my advice was really universal. So we met at Le Pain Quotidien two or three years ago and fleshed out some ideas until we had enough for ten chapters, each on a different subject.
Who do you imagine as the audience for your book?
The 16-year-old, the pre-professional, who is freaked out of their mind. Lots of dancers are perfectionists and it can be debilitating. It took a while to get to this place where I was comfortable and figured out that it’s a process and that no one expects you to be perfect. I cried a lot during my first couple of years in the company. I also wrote it for kids that don’t get into companies. For them it’s helpful to see a principal dancer who knows that there is life outside of this profession and who is even looking forward to that. Ballet is not the be all and end all.
What about non-dancers?
I definitely wanted to demystify ballet and show that we’re just normal human beings. All of the topics are told through the lens of my experiences, but they’re universal topics: anxiety, weight, getting feedback from your boss, reacting to criticism. Those are things that you would deal with in any job. I’m in business school now and I’m listening to case studies and talking to fellow students about things that go on in the workplace, and I can see that we’re not that far off from what other people experience. The dynamics of personalities play out similarly.
There is such a mythology around ballet, much of it melodramatic and negative. Your level-headedness gives the lie to this narrative of dancers as obsessive characters living in an unhealthy environment.
It’s so over-dramatized in movies. All that sex and drugs and other things. And you know what, I come from Utah. That’s not the world I found when I came to New York. I’m not living this insane life. There’s a kind of glamour to that idea. But I think it’s based on this scene from the ‘70s, with Studio 54 and a lot of partying. We’ve never moved on. I mean, you can find drama anywhere people are passionate about what they do. We are intense people because we care so much about what we’re doing and we put so much effort into everything, even if it’s just eight counts of music.
One of the most harrowing sections of your book is when you talk about the crippling anxiety you used to feel about performing and taking on new roles. You talk about even getting anxious about getting anxious, which sounds, well, awful. And, even worse, you used to suffer from sudden fainting spells that would affect you for days.
Yes, I was super intense. There are a number of people in the company who have seen it happen, who watched the fire department come and carry me out of the theater. And I wouldn’t just wake up wondering what happened, I would wake up and start screaming. It was my absolute worst nightmare, like being on the edge of the universe about to fall into oblivion. And that’s why it was so great when I started to feel that this was something I could overcome.
It sounds like learning to meditate was a big part of your recovery.
It changed my life. It’s a way to take my energy and harness it in a way that is really powerful. I wish I had had that at the very beginning of my career when I was struggling, all those years of not feeling that I was capable. It would have helped me so much. The meditating Megan is truly a different person from the person I was before discovering meditation. More dancers should do it, and if I were in charge of a school, it would be part of the curriculum. Inner city kids in Oakland are doing it, judges and police officers do it; there’s such great data on how helpful it is in all kinds of professions. Self-regulation helps you to become a much more powerful and formidable presence. I finally feel like I’m able to be the adult I always wanted to be.
How did you get started with meditation?
I was so desperate for something; I knew something wasn’t right. And I knew that I should have better control over stressful moments. One day during company class, a chair crashed to the floor and made a loud noise. I dropped to my knees and screamed. I was just so sensitive, and I needed a tool to harness that over-sensitivity.
During the pandemic, you gave birth to twin girls; you now have three small children; you’re taking business school classes; you’re dancing; and you just wrote a book. And yet you say that you feel like you have more time and energy than before, not less. Your dancing certainly suggests that is the case. How is it possible?
I just feel more alive, every part of me. I used to come home after rehearsals and sit on the couch and watch TV. I’d be like a zombie. Now I can’t do that. I come home and I have to start dealing with diapers and I’m constantly picking things up off the floor and doing laundry. My husband and I, we don’t have those down moments. So then when I’m sleeping, I sleep really deeply. And everything feels a little bit more alive. Some Mondays [her day off], I’ll sleep for three hours in the middle of the day when all the kids are in daycare. I guess I’m just economizing my energy and my time. This season I had a nap center set up in my dressing room, with a roll-up mattress and some really nice pillows. That’s my version of self-care.
So much of what you’re able to accomplish is about time-management. What was the process of writing the book like?
I wrote one chapter on a little break during the last photo campaign shoot we did for the company. I wrote on Mondays, when I had more time. I wrote in the mornings. Past 12 o’clock, I know I’m not going to come up with anything useful. So I would wait until my mind was in a calm place and I felt like I actually had something to say. I didn’t want to put anything down that I would have to edit over and over again. Generally, things fleshed out easily because they were memories and stories that I’ve held on to. Each little chapter had its journey, so I knew where I was going with it.
How would you summarize, in a few words, what you mean by “ballerina mindset”?
It’s this idea of being exceptional, but not at the cost of sacrificing your sanity. That you can be in Olympic shape, but also, for example, be normal with food. And that you can have a really good performance without freaking out about it all night the night before, or even the whole weekend before. It’s about the mental game. It doesn’t have to be a painful process in order to be an artist. I think that idea, that we need to die for our art form, is oversold. I really view it as a job that we’re more than capable of doing. We’re highly specialized. I care about what I do, but I’m not going to die if things don’t go exactly the way I want. I guess the ballerina mindset is known that dancing isn’t everything. The way to be successful is not to hold on to it so tightly but, instead, to give it enough space that you can also be a full human being.