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Ready to Boost Your Body Image? Start With These 3 Small Steps

If you struggle with body image as a dancer, you're not alone. Some of the biggest stars of ballet have opened up about their own difficulties. There's a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and awareness of that fact emerges early—sometimes even before puberty. Maybe you've received direct comments from an artistic director or a teacher, or you compare yourself to your peers or other dancers on social media.

When you feel overwhelmed by aesthetic pressure, it can steal the joy from your art. Not only can obsessing over your appearance distract you from working on your technique and artistry, but it can also lead to self-critical thoughts or disordered eating. If you're feeling stuck in a loop of body negativity, it is possible to stop the destructive cycle. In my work as a holistic health coach for dancers, cultivating a more positive self-image is a big focus. Here are some practical actions I guide my clients through that you can implement to shift your body narrative.

Reframe Your "Flaws," and Remind Yourself of Your Strengths

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Think about the body parts you criticize most often. What if the physical attributes you considered a hindrance were in fact part of your gift? They're part of what makes you unique, and they shape the way you move.

If you worry that your thighs are "too big," consider all the power you have for jumping. If you're concerned that your legs are too short, think about the speed they might allow. Whatever your perceived flaw, reflect on how you can view it as a positive.

In addition to this reframing, bring attention back to the things you do well. If you have brilliant footwork, flowing port de bras or expressive artistry, put your focus there. Research has shown that people who focus on their strengths are happier, less stressed and more fulfilled.

At first, you might struggle to believe these positive mental reframes. If that's the case, it can be helpful to view your fellow dancers through this positive lens as well. Stop searching for things your friends could improve upon and start looking for the qualities in their dancing you admire. Releasing yourself from your tendency to judge others can allow you to ease up on yourself.

Rewrite Your Body Story

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Your body story is the way you view your physical attributes and whether you define them as good or bad. The story started forming when you were quite young as you began to notice the world around you. As people say things, perceptions form. If your body story is negative, or mostly negative, it's time for a rewrite.

First, outline your current story. Think back to the earliest memories that shaped your perception of what a body in dance should be. Write down comments you heard over the years about your body, focusing first on those that created a negative perception. You'll also include comments that may have been directed to your class or other individuals if they informed the way you view yourself. It can be emotional recalling each of these experiences, but once you've done it, you can take your power back and start to shift the story.

Next, write down memories of teachers who were particularly encouraging, positive and supportive, too. Who saw your potential and made you feel like you could succeed and achieve your dance goals? Go into as much detail with these memories as you can.

Once you've compiled the negative and positive memories, rewrite your body story with a focus on the good. What would it have looked like if you only had positive, supportive experiences? How would you feel? Would your approach to auditions, taking class and casting be different?

While you can't change your past experiences, you do get to choose what they mean to you. Believe the good, and decide to trust the people who encouraged you along the way. The naysayers may be projecting their own negativity onto you or are a product of a broken system that has too long favored an unhealthy body ideal.

Start Your Day With a Body-Image Boost

A woman with short curly hair lies on a yoga mat with eyes closed and one hand on her heart, the other on her stomach.

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This simple exercise is a great way to start the day. I developed it for clients in my Whole Dancer program using elements from yoga, meditation and affirmations. You can even do it while you're still lying in bed.

Place one hand on your heart and one on your stomach. Tune in to your breath. Allow the hand on your stomach to encourage deep belly breathing, which promotes calm and relaxation.

Next, bring your thoughts to gratitude. Thank your body for carrying you through life. Call to mind specific things to thank different body parts for. You might thank your legs for allowing you to jump, or your arms for facilitating port de bras.

It's often helpful to direct gratitude towards the parts of your body that you struggle with. Focus on an area that you've deemed "wrong," and send extra love and gratitude there. If you incorporate this exercise into your daily routine, big shifts are possible.

For Lasting Body Positivity

Changing your body narrative doesn't happen overnight; it's a process. Sustaining a positive body image is ongoing too. Just like building up muscle strength and improving your technique, you have to come back to these exercises regularly to see progress. If you'd like more help on your journey, consider enlisting support from a psychologist or other mental health professional. Many of my dancer clients work with both a health coach and a psychologist simultaneously.

Putting the time into cultivating true self-love and respect for your instrument will make you happier, healthier and more confident as a dancer and person.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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