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Tips for Developing a Growth Mindset, and Why It Can Help You Become a Happier Dancer

"I was told when I was a young teenager that I had the worst pirouette my teacher had ever seen," remembers New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette. The statement was made lightheartedly, and Lovette laughed at the time. "The whole class laughed, and I knew it was a bad pirouette," she says, "but it still hurt." These moments can quickly consume a dancer's inner monologue, and Lovette could have concluded that she just isn't a good turner, but she didn't. Instead she told herself, "It may be the worst pirouette that my teacher has ever seen, but it is my pirouette and I am working on it. It will get better."

Ballet dancers tend to see things in black and white. "I am good at jumping and bad at adagio," for instance, or "I will be successful when I get accepted by x, y or z program or company." This kind of rigid thinking is what mental health professionals often call a "fixed" mindset, and it could be hurting your development as a dancer and a person, as well as your mental well-being.

The good news is that a "growth" mindset—belief that your abilities will improve with time and effort—is a skill you can develop. By looking for opportunities for growth, rather than defining things as permanently good or bad, you will likely dance better and be happier doing it.

Wearing a blue leotard, tights, pointe shoes and floppy hat, Lauren Lovette does an arabesque on her right leg and holds onto a grand piano with her right hand and a blue folding chair with her left.

Lauren Lovette in Jerome Robbins' The Concert

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

What Is a Growth Mindset?

The concept of a "growth" versus a "fixed" mindset was popularized by the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. According to Sara Hickmann, a clinical and performance psychologist who presented at the U.S. Prix de Ballet earlier this year, a growth mindset believes that success and improvement come from persistence and effort, while a fixed mindset is focused on the outcome or the reward. "When you can adopt a growth mindset, your ability to be resilient and successful over time is much greater," she says.

UK-based psychotherapist and former ballet dancer Terry Hyde notes that a fixed mindset is unconscious, and has a lot to do with what we learn as small children (for example, that we are good at ballet and bad at math). "Having a fixed mindset means creating anxiety when things don't go right," says Hyde. For example, a dancer with this mode of thinking may be completely derailed by an audition rejection and spiral into feelings that they are a terrible dancer. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset will reflect on what they learned or gained from the audition process, even if they aren't accepted.

Focus on Attitude and Effort

When Hyde does workshops and therapy sessions with pre-profession-al and professional dancers, he uses the acronym "FEAR" (false evidence appearing real) to give them perspective on the anxiety a fixed mindset creates. When a rehearsal director snaps at you, it is unlikely that they "hate" you, and more likely that they are having a bad day and misdirecting it. Likewise, the subjective opinion of a director at an audition does not qualify you as a "bad" dancer if you are not selected.

To foster a growth mindset, says Hickmann, focus on two things you can control: effort and attitude. "We can increase our effort and change our attitude, and even if the outcome isn't what we want, dancers are going to feel a deeper sense of meaning to what they are doing, and be more optimistic about what they are doing in general."

One of the most effective ways we can adjust our attitude is by practicing positive self-talk (see the graphic above for some examples). When confronted with setbacks, speak to yourself the way you would to a dear friend—you wouldn't tell her that she's a bad dancer because she didn't get cast, right? At its core, a growth mindset is dedicated to your belief in yourself and what you are capable of.

Lauren Lovette, wearing a white T-shirt, gray plaid pants and ballet slippers, does a pass\u00e9 with her right leg and bends sideways to the right. She lifts her right arm up and grabs her right elbow with her left hand, framing her head with her arms.

Lovette rehearsing her ballet The Shaded Line with members of NYCB.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Do Something New That Scares You

In 2008, while still a student at the School of American Ballet, Lovette signed herself up for a choreographic workshop for one reason: It scared her. "I was so afraid to put my name down because I didn't know if I would be able to put anything out there," she remembers. "That helped me discover something that I really love to do. But I didn't know that I loved it. I didn't have a vision of being a choreographer." Lovette has since choreographed three works for the NYCB repertoire.

Hickmann says that Lovette's leap of faith is exactly the kind of thing dancers should do to foster a growth mindset. "It shows that you are open to ways in which you are going to have to lean into fear, or incompetence, or frustration in learning something new," she says. Your goal should not be to strike gold on a new skill like Lovette did with choreography (she has also tried bread baking, drawing and, during the pandemic, remodeling a house), but to keep learning. "Expose yourself to other activities where you don't have those same expectations as in ballet," says Hickmann. "Often that mindset, the need to win, will travel with you," she adds. It takes practice to do something you are not prolific at and enjoy the learning process.

When Lovette speaks about her attitude, common themes emerge: growth, learning and gratitude. "I've held my career with a very open hand because you have to. It is not something that is ever sure," she says. But Lovette has come to this mindset through hard work, as a lover of therapy and self-help books. "It is always about doing the best that I can in the phase that I am in. And as long as I am learning and growing, it is worth it."

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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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