Roman Zhurbin leads dancers through a strengthening exercises with a resistance band. Courtesy ABT.

The Rules of Conditioning: Roman Zhurbin's Guidelines for Ballet Dancers

When Roman Zhurbin isn't dancing as a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, he's exercising his other passion: fitness. As a certified personal trainer, he coaches dancers through his side business, Roman Empire Fitness, and co-teaches a strength and conditioning class to ABT Studio Company with fellow company member Thomas Forster. We spoke with Zhurbin about the ingredients for a solid conditioning program for ballet dancers. If you'd like to increase your strength and reduce your injury risk, these guidelines are paramount.

Keep It Simple

Most exercises in Zhurbin's conditioning classes for ABT Studio Company use a dancer's own body weight or simple props like resistance bands. "It's not a magic trick," he says. "These are simple exercises that everybody knows," like push-ups, lunges, bridges and squats. Single-leg exercises (like one-legged bridges), says Zhurbin, are especially important for dancers. A trainer can help you devise a program that fits your goals, and then work with you to increase its difficulty as you build strength.

Don't Do It for the 'Gram

"I stay away from those crazy exercises that could injure a dancer, like BOSU ball balances," he says. Always ask yourself why you're doing an exercise. What muscles are you aiming to strengthen? How does it connect to dance? "I see everybody on Instagram doing it, so I'm going to do it, too" doesn't cut it.

Don't Overdo

A busy performance season isn't the time to ramp up your strength training. "It's more about maintaining strength and not fatiguing the dancers so when they dance they could potentially get hurt," he says. If you're on a break or have a lighter schedule, then you can really work on building strength in an area that's weak, whether it be the knees, shoulders, ankles, glutes or core. Overall, Zhurbin recommends strength-training twice a week.

Two women in leotards, sneakers and warm-up pants plank with their forearms on a yoga mat.

Planking is one station in the circuit workout.

Courtesy ABT

Spend Time Working in Parallel

Zhurbin often sees dancers with hamstrings or glutes that are weak or not firing properly. He attributes this to all of the time spent working turned out in ballet. "When you externally rotate, the front of the body turns on—the quads, the psoas," he says. "You're not using very much of the back side of the body." To combat this imbalance, he recommends conditioning in parallel with exercises like lunges, bridges and parallel sidesteps across a room (with a resistance band looped around your ankles and knees bent).

Stick With an Exercise

Don't do a completely different group of exercises each time you work out. "Concentrate on one exercise, get good at it and then move on," says Zhurbin. He recommends keeping an exercise in your regimen for six to eight sessions. Each workout, your trainer can gauge your progress and adjust the difficulty as needed. Take push-ups, for example: You might start with your knees on the floor, then move on to an inclined version (knees up, with your hands on something slightly elevated off the floor, like a low bench) and finally to a traditional push-up.

Honor Where You Are

Pushing yourself is good, but doing something your body can't handle yet can get you into trouble. For instance, a dancer might insist on doing regular push-ups, but they sink in the shoulders and lower back when they attempt them. That's a case when Zhurbin will suggest a more suitable modification. "But the body adapts to what you're doing really fast. Your third workout doing push-ups on your knees, you may be able to throw in one set of regular push-ups."

Get Your Heart Rate Up

Zhurbin finishes his classes with cardiovascular conditioning, choosing a drill like burpees, an agility challenge like ladder work, or a series of jumps. "When you do cardiovascular exercise, your body builds up lactic acid really quickly and that's why you get fatigued," he says. The more you do this type of exercise, the better your stamina. "Your body is able to pump the oxygen to the muscles, and you can go for longer and conserve strength." This translates directly to stage time. "You have more gas in the tank."

A Sample Session

A typical group workout for ABT Studio Company starts with foam rolling and warm-ups before dancers dive into an eight-station circuit.

They spend 40 seconds at a station, rest for 20 seconds, and then move on to the next one. Dancers aim to complete 3 rounds of the entire circuit, which features simple, full-body exercises focused on the following elements:

  • Core (planks, side planks)
  • Power (box jumps, medicine ball throws, agility ladder)
  • Pushing (push-ups, overhead press with kettlebell)
  • Pulling (pull-ups, TRX row)
  • Knee-dominant (squats, lunges)
  • Hip-dominant (bridges)

The workout finishes with a dynamic exercise that gets dancers' heart rates up, like burpees or running through a rope ladder.

Should Men Bulk Up?

Pair of blue dumbbells Isolated on orange background.

Getty Images

While dancer and personal trainer Roman Zhurbin acknowledges that young men should strengthen their upper body for partnering, intensive weight training isn't the safest option. Unless you're working with a trainer consistently who can spot you and guide you through exercises with proper form, "body weight usually works best," he says. "Doing weights feels good on the ego," but incorrect form, especially in hypermobile dancers, can lead to lower back or shoulder pain and even injury.

Instead, Zhurbin recommends that young men start with exercises using their own body weight or resistance bands. Focus on pushing and pulling movement patterns, in particular. If your dance program doesn't have a conditioning coach, Zhurbin recommends YouTube as a resource for general fitness tips, though he cautions against following fad workouts. "YouTube has many channels where you can find body weight exercises with a coach giving tips for what to watch out for—things like keeping your knee between the little toe and big toe, and having the right posture and weight distribution."

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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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Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

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