Miko Fogarty: Choosing Health and Happiness Over a Career in Ballet

Miko Fogarty’s childhood was filled with study and competition of ballet all over the world. At nine, she performed in her first international competition. At 12, she was featured in the documentary First Position, and at 17 was hired at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. However, she soon realized this career was not what she envisioned, began to struggle with body image, and decided to pursue other interests.  

Photo by Erik Nuding

Photo by Erik Nuding

Miko Fogarty.png

Where are you from, originally?

I was born in England, but my family moved to Berkeley, California when I was two. Actually, we moved so my father could get his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley, where I’m attending now.

When did you start dancing?

Shortly after I turned four, I started ballet. Mom wanted to keep me busy, so each day I had an activity; whether it was ballet, tennis, piano or violin. Ballet stuck because I liked it a lot. I started competing in ballet competitions, and by the time I was eight or nine, dancing was the main focus in my life. When I was 12, my family and I decided to do online school to accommodate my training and traveling schedule. I was training and competing all over the place. By the time I was 18, I had been to 25 different countries. I also traveled a lot within the country. There are some people in ballet who decide not to do school at all because they want to focus on dance completely. I feel like that’s not a great idea, because you never know what’s going to happen.

Can you describe the life of a competitive dancer?

I’m not the most competitive person, so I didn’t enjoy the competitions that much. They were so stressful and so much pressure, especially when I was older and people started to know who I was. I felt like all eyes were on me. But I learned a lot from them about how to perform, as well as how to handle nerves and pressure. That’s really helpful now in university while taking exams and stuff like that. Another great thing was the network, I got to meet so many amazing individuals also dancers. Especially because of online school, they were my friends I could see at those competitions.

Did you sustain any injuries?

My biggest injury was breaking my metatarsal. I was in a typical ballet class in Japan. I was completely warmed up, doing little jumps, and it broke. Then right away I couldn’t stand on my foot properly without being in pain. I think I also sprained my ankle at the same time. I had to take two months off. When I was injured I didn’t know what to do with my life – but that’s when I realized the human body is so amazing in how it heals, and eventually peaked my interest in studying the body.

I had a big competition in Bulgaria coming up that summer, two months after I returned. That was the last competition I did. In the second out of the three rounds, I strained it again. I made it to the finals, and not many make it—maybe only a couple Americans. I wasn’t sure if I should keep going or go home. In the end, we were able to find a doctor in Bulgaria to give me anesthesia shots or something to get through it. I did my final dance, and ended up getting Silver. After both those injuries the foot just wasn’t as strong any more. So it wasn’t ever the same with that foot.

Besides that, I was lucky. I sprained my ankle a couple times, got some bruises and broken toes. But as an athlete, we have a high pain tolerance, so I would perform on point through injuries. I don’t condone that, but I unfortunately did a couple times.

What was your favorite experience in your career?

The biggest competition that stands out the most was the one in Moscow International Ballet Competition because it is held every four years on a massive stage, and we got to perform with a live orchestra. Winning gold was so amazing; I can’t put it into words. That was the biggest moment in my career for sure. It really wasn’t about winning. By that point I had not really danced my very best, especially in a final round. I went into that dance not caring what place I got, I just wanted to dance my best. I kept myself so focused for the full two weeks before, and I did it. I remember coming off stage and telling my mom I don’t care what I place, because I know I gave the best performance I ever have given and couldn’t give any more.

I watched your TED Talk, and loved being able to see that dance. What are some other highlights of your career?

When I was 12 years old, I was featured in a ballet documentary called First Position. That was an amazing experience because I got to see what it was like to be in front of the camera as well as behind. It follows six dancers preparing to go to a competition in New York. That’s another way people, especially in the dance world, got to know who I was.

Speaking of the TED Talk, you opened up about some very personal things, such as struggling with your body image and an eating disorder. Are you comfortable sharing a bit about that?

It was really hard to open up about it, especially in a TED Talk. I encountered some eating problems. I think I struggled with more mental problems than physical problems. It was really hard to deal with. I didn’t like how my body looked most of the time. By the time I was 18, I wasn’t happy with my body. I felt like I couldn’t appreciate my body because of ballet. I knew I would never be happy with my body 100 percent unless I left. Then I could appreciate how amazing the human body is.

I think it’s something many girls and boys deal with in dance, and in every day life. I think it’s important to acknowledge that it happens. Although I was hesitant to open up because there is a stereotype that all dancers have an eating disorder, but that isn’t correct.

And how about opening up about leaving ballet in general?

To open up about leaving the ballet world was hard at first. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for a whole year. The year after I retired, I would talk to my closest friends. I felt there were so many people who had been rooting me on for so long—through the documentary, social media, YouTube—I felt like I would be disappointing so many people by saying I’m not doing that any more. I felt like my identity had been a ballerina for so long and everyone knew me as that and only that. I just went silent on social media because I didn’t want people to be disappointed in me. Then after a whole year and a half, a ballet magazine reached out for an interview. After that interview went up and there was so much support, I felt more comfortable talking about it. The TED Talk was the first time I completely opened up. Since then I’ve been totally open because I think it helps people. So many people have reached out saying they had a very similar experience and they are happy they aren’t alone. That was my goal: that others know they aren’t alone and they can make that decision to change. I think we don’t talk about this transition, but we all go through it. We put everything into our career, and we have to change eventually. Whether it’s 16 or 35 or 40.

Besides the issues you were having with body image and health, were there any other contributors that made you decide to leave?

After I joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet, right away it wasn’t what I expected. I was enjoying it, but it didn’t feel like the right career for me. During this whole time, I wasn’t telling anyone how I was feeling. I was contemplating it to myself. And then I was going through these eating problems, the worst when I was with the company. I realized after about six months that it wasn’t for me. I went through a little bit of a depression, and mentally I was not healthy at all. That year was the hardest for me. Not only about the mental things, but the decision to leave was so difficult. At first I didn’t think it was a possibility to leave ballet. But then when I saw someone else who made the same decision (leaving to attend college), I realized it could be a possibility for me too. Finally when I made the decision, I really wanted to do something else in my life and consider other careers. When I was injured – health stood out to me the most. I started to research college. I hadn’t been in a classroom for like seven years – I would look up videos of a day in the life of a college student. I didn’t even know what to put in my backpack. How do you know what to bring to class? What are exams like? The last exam I took in a classroom was in sixth grade. It was going to be a whole new experience, but it was exciting. I knew it would be a new chapter in my life.

I had another six months of commitments to travel and perform after that. I wanted to finish that out before I started college. I scheduled it so my last performance was in Indonesia.

Can you describe your final performance? Was it bitter sweet?

It was a Sunday night. My college classes started Monday morning. I had to miss the first day of school to travel back, but I took a red eye home. So I never really had a break between dance and school – it started the next day. The last performance was surreal – I didn’t tell anyone. My family knew, but no one that was organizing the trips knew I was stopping. It was hard to keep it all to myself. I felt like I had this huge secret. The last day was kind of emotional – last time warming up, doing my makeup a certain way, putting my costume on. It was bitter sweet. I was trying to take in every moment and enjoy it. But I was able to mentally prepare for six months – it wasn’t a sudden shock for me. I had known for awhile and had been ready. By the end of my first week of college, it felt right. I loved it. Ever since then, I’ve had no regrets.

Where did you first attend college?

I went to a community college for two years before I transferred into UC Berkeley: first Feather River College and then Contra Costa College. That was one of the best decisions I ever made. Maybe some people don’t think community college is that good, but some of the professors there were amazing and even better than at Berkeley. Especially in California, the community colleges have a great transfer system. This year at UC Berkeley was challenging, but I made it through and have met so many amazing people.

What are you studying?

Right now, I’m pre-health. I’m looking into medical school or physical therapy school. But I’m also interested in research and may go into biology or something to do with dance. I haven’t completely made my decision – I’m still working it out. I’m enjoying the ride right now. I know if I do change for some reason, I know I can allow myself to do that. I think whatever experiences from that past help in whatever you do. I thought maybe ballet wouldn’t help in any way in school, biology or science, but different components have really helped.

Do you still dance?

I took my first dance class in two years at UC Berkeley. I was really nervous, but it was not a teacher I had trained with before, so I didn’t have to worry about them thinking I wasn’t as good. That teacher was so nice. I really enjoyed it because I’m studying all the time and I don’t move that much. It was nice to stretch and move my body. I would like to keep doing it next semester if it works with my schedule. It was nice to do ballet without the pressure.

I also teach private lessons to people working on technique, who are training to compete, or perform. It’s flexible, and I enjoy teaching. I feel like it would be a waste if I didn’t transfer my knowledge to others. Seeing people improve is amazing. I still love ballet. It’s one of the most beautiful things the human body can do. I love the music. It’s still in my life. I try to keep in contact with ballet friends through social media. I have zero regrets of leaving my company and the profession. I’m so much healthier and happier now.

How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?

I think success can be interpreted in so many different ways. I think for me, it’s being happy where I am now and knowing I worked hard to get here. When you’ve worked really hard for something and achieve your goal, and also when you are able to be happy and healthy in your own skin, being positive through different situations, surrounded by amazing people – that’s success. I would say I’m successful so far in life, but I still have more goals I want to achieve. It’s never ending.

Watch Miko’s TED Talk.

Follow Miko on LinkedIn.

At Moscow International Ballet Competition

At Moscow International Ballet Competition

Myriam GlezComment