Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger

Ray Nard Imagemaker, Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet

Learning How to Budget on a Ballet Income—Especially During a Pandemic

When our Nutcracker performances got canceled at Los Angeles Ballet, I, of course, had to deal with the emotional reaction. But I also had to worry: How was I going to pay my rent?

The pandemic has opened my eyes to financial wellness—it took a crisis for me to understand that I wasn't prepared for one. With the pandemic, I realized that I had not been saving and spending in a way that was thoughtful. I was paying bills and whatever else came up in the moment, but I had no eye on saving for the future or in case of emergency.

Knowing that many dancers live paycheck to paycheck, I wondered how artists I know have sustained long-term careers, or how they've made big financial moves, like buying a house. It seemed impossible to me! Considering everyone, especially now, has different situations with expenses and income, I wanted to find out how some dancers have made their budgets work for them in order to save, even amid long layoffs or while working gig to gig.


Getting Started

Many dancers start working at a young age, and often haven't lived on their own before or accounted for their own expenses. Chelsea Paige Johnston, a freelance dancer in Los Angeles and a former soloist at Los Angeles Ballet, began learning how to budget when she became a trainee at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. "I was paid only in pointe shoes and performance stipends," Johnston says. Her parents, who had to help her cover living expenses at the time, taught her how to organize her finances into categories, including rent, utilities, health care, gas, groceries and savings. She's maintained this practice throughout her career, even as her income and expenses have fluctuated.

Rebecca Eve Selkowe, financial wellness counselor at The Actors Fund and author of Dominate Your Debt: A Work & Play Book, recommends starting as Johnston did to collect as much information as possible about your income and spending habits—while staying judgment-free and patient with yourself. "I keep artists who work with me in the gathering-information phase for as long as possible," she says. "We create a profit-and-loss sheet by looking at our spending history for the last six months, assigning a category for every transaction, and then finding the average for every category. Then you would do the same for your income sources."

A small white calculator and silver pen sits on top of a pile of papers labeled "monthly budget." The budget sheets are divided into grids labeled "income" and "expenses," with categories for living expenses like rent.

Getty Images

Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger uses an Excel spreadsheet to create an expected budget and to log her expenses each month. This allows her and her husband (also a dancer) to see exactly how much money they're spending and where it's going. They sought additional budget guidance from money-management expert Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University course. "It takes a lot of time to get good at creating an accurate budget," says Meister-Upleger. "At first, we were often underestimating how much everything costs. Now I have a much better idea."

After tallying your expenses and income comes the harder work of balancing the two: Do you have enough money to cover your expenses and meet a personal-savings goal? Balancing your profit and loss can help you prevent missing bill payments and accumulating debt. Of course, the pandemic makes doing so more challenging, with many dancers facing furloughs and pay cuts.

Some have addressed this is by cutting costs, such as moving in with roommates or their parents. Meister-Upleger says that while she was collecting unemployment over a stretch of the pandemic, "we made a very conscious effort to save anything we didn't use on expenses. We tightened the budget up and weren't buying anything we didn't need."

Others have pivoted to find other sources of income while keeping expenses low—for example, I started freelance writing and performing in virtual gigs. Johnston has booked online performances while also working as a demonstrator for virtual classes. This is where Selkowe's advice about being patient with yourself becomes key, since we all know it is frustrating to work hard and still struggle to close the gap.

A cute white ceramic piggy bank wears a jeweled tiara and pink tutu, and stands on top of a dollar bill and next to a pile of coins.

Brett Hondow/Pixabay

Financial Wellness

The Actors Fund's Financial Wellness programs incorporate education on budgeting, investing basics and taxes, as well as exploring the mental side of financial security. "The 'wellness' piece has to do with your relationship with money," Selkowe says. "Are you engaging with your money? When it comes to your finances, are you practicing all the things it takes to be in a good relationship, like kindness, patience and honesty with yourself?" Because of the pandemic, all The Actors Fund's programming, which is specifically tailored to artists, is now offered online and is free for performing arts professionals. Dancers nationwide can sign up for single-session workshops and six-week programs, including the Psychology of Money and Managing Cash Flow.

Having a realistic gauge of your finances can help lower anxiety related to it. "I can't express how much less stressed I am from keeping our budget," says Meister-Upleger. After a serious concussion, she was able to stay afloat and pay medical bills thanks to an emergency fund she had built up. "It was very sad to see the savings account emptied, but it was such a relief we didn't have to worry about how to pay the bills. I was able to focus on getting better."

Johnston reevaluated her budget after leaving company life to become a freelance dancer. "Before, I used to add up and portion out by month my total anticipated earnings for each season to set up my budget for the year," she says. "Now, I have to plan ahead more and be open to a cycle of saving and seeking financial support." She uses a mobile app provided by her bank to stay in touch with her spending—most major banks allow you to view your monthly statements and set budget alerts.

Chelasea Paige Johnston poses in first arabesque on pointe, wears a black tank leotard and white practice tutu

Chelsea Paige Johnston re-evaluated her budget when she transitioned from a company to freelancing.

Elliot McGucken, Courtesy Johnston

Other Resources and Savings

The pandemic has made a lot of dancers think about other financial resources. "[As a freelancer,] I'm paid inconsistently and unpredictably," Johnston says. "Now, with jobs canceled or indefinitely postponed and the changing availability of government assistance, I've had to take things week by week instead of planning further out into the future."

Some steps towards finding assistance include filing for unemployment insurance, if eligible, and applying for emergency-relief-fund grants from private organizations like Artist Relief and Artist Relief Tree. The American Guild of Musical Artists is offering COVID-19-related assistance to its members. The Actors Fund also offers emergency relief for dancers, in addition to its educational programs.

As a dancer, your budget most likely will be cyclical, but in the thick times, make sure to put some money in savings. Even putting aside $5 a week is a step in the right direction—it sets the intention of saving, and you can adjust the amount as you get used to the practice. A well-maintained savings account could work in tandem with aforementioned assistance during a crisis, and hopefully lead to stability in the future. "You can take hold of your own financial destiny," says Meister-Upleger, "if you start to save what you can and try to keep your expenses low."

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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."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streams internationally on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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