Orlando Ballet trainee Eva DeLoof demonstrates a basic bridge exercise.

Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Achieve a Stronger Arabesque with These 5 Conditioning Exercises

Are you looking to gain flexibility and strength in your arabesque? Many dancers are unsatisfied with the height of their back leg, and believe intense stretching is the best way to increase extension in the arabesque position. "However," says American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Julie Daugherty, "dancers are often surprised how much their arabesque can be improved by spending time doing strengthening exercises to control the motion, rather than spending a lot of time just stretching into the position."

Daugherty recommends adding the following regimen for improving your arabesque. "These are not complicated exercises, but they must be done with focus," she says. "The most important thing to recognize is that there is no one exercise that will give you a great arabesque—you must build on a solid foundation of core, pelvic and hip control, and strength."

You'll need:

    • -a physiotherapy ball
    • -a yoga mat (or soft flooring)

    1. Planks

    Planks are excellent for building core and pelvic control.

    A female teenage ballet student in a pink leotard pushes up on her hands in a plan pose, her legs straight out behind her and weight on her flexed toes.

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    Front Plank

    • Lie on your stomach with two straight legs and your toes curled underneath you. Engage your abdominal muscles before you begin—imagine scooping and lifting your stomach off the mat.
    • Rise into a plank, either in a full push-up position or on the elbows. Pay special attention to the line of your body so that the back doesn't sway or tilt. Hold for 30 seconds, then maintain a flat back as you lower to the ground. Repeat 3 times.
    A female teenage ballet student in a pink leotard lies on her side and props herself up on her right arm, with her left hand on her hip.

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    Side Plank

    • Begin on your right side with the right elbow in line with your shoulder. Imagine a wall directly in front and back of you in order to maintain the straight line of your body.
    • Push up so your entire body is off the mat and hold the pose for 15–30 seconds. Imagine pushing your bottom leg into the ground and hold the position to activate your hip stabilizers. Side planks can be done with the hand or elbow on the mat. Repeat 3 times before switching to the left side.

    2. Basic Bridge

    A teenage ballet student in a pink leotard and tights demonstrates a bridge pose on a yoga mat.

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    Bridges are important for hip strength and pelvic control.

    • Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart on the floor, raise your hips to the ceiling and allow the lower back to lift off the mat. "Make sure you are using your glute muscles, not just your hamstrings, and make sure you can do a bridge in a neutral spine, not just a tucked position," says Daugherty.
    • Hold the bridge for 5–10 seconds, then gently lower your body to the mat in one piece. Repeat 10 times. If your hamstrings begin to cramp, you may not be activating your glute muscles sufficiently.

    3. Hip Extension With Rotation

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    • Lying on your stomach, engage your lower glute muscles to lift one leg so that it hovers off the floor. Bend your knee.

    4. Airplane

    A female ballet student in a pink leotard lies with her stomach on the floor and lifts her upper body and legs off the floor, creating an arc with her body.

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    This is good for stability and trunk control.

    • Begin on your stomach with your legs long and arms out straight in front of you. Lift the arms and legs simultaneously so that your body arcs and the weight is supported by your stomach and hips. Think of a long smooth curve with no crunching into the low back as you lengthen the spine.
    • Hold for 5 seconds, then lower arms and legs back to the floor. Repeat 10 times.

    5. Supported Arabesque With Back Leg Turned Out on a Physio Ball

    This exercise engages your back and gluteal muscles. "You should be creating one long curve from the top of your head to the tip of your toe reaching out in both directions," says Daugherty.

    Israel Zavaleta Escobedo, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

    • Face the barre with your right leg on the physio ball. Lengthen the spine. (Think of a long, smooth curve, with no crunching into the low back.)

    All exercises modeled by Orlando Ballet trainee Eva DeLoof, courtesy Orlando Ballet

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    Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

    Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

    Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

    But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

    And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

    "Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

    Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

    Jayme Thornton for Pointe

    A Life-Changing Opportunity

    Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

    In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

    At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

    She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

    Jayme Thornton for Pointe

    Moving On and Up

    Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

    She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

    Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

    Jayme Thornton for Pointe

    That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

    As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

    Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

    He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

    Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

    Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

    Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

    Perspective in a Pandemic

    The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

    But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

    She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

    Jayme Thornton for Pointe

    One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

    Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

    And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

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