Marisa Trapani of Ballet Academy East. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

The Quest for Confidence: How to Find and Maintain Healthy Self-Confidence

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Pointe.

Today, she's a confident Miami City Ballet soloist, but Emily Bromberg wasn't always so self-assured. As a teenager, she withered under the weight of self-doubt. Even being cast as Kitri in her first professional production of Don Quixote, at Festival Ballet Providence, didn't bolster her confidence—instead, she convinced herself she was too immature for the role and nearly melted in tears midway through her debut. “I was constantly double- and triple-checking myself, wondering what other people thought, wondering if I was good enough," she recalls. “It's the nature of the dance world, but there were moments when I was really at the edge of giving up."


These kinds of self-confidence issues, fueled by endless criticism, high pressure to succeed and a flood of intimidating images on social media, can plague dancers for years. It's easy to start questioning your worthiness in comparison to the latest Instagram star, but in the competitive and uncertain dance world, belief in yourself is crucial to reaching your goals—and your full potential.

A Healthy Sense of Self

The basis of innate self-confidence is recognizing that you're a human being with imperfections like anyone else, while understanding that your shortcomings don't define you as a person or as a dancer. “Self-confidence is having an accurate view of yourself and feeling good about it," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet. But being pleased with yourself does not necessarily mean that you have an overblown ego. “It's not arrogance or narcissism. You know you're not perfect—but you feel good about yourself."

Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal who now directs the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles, notes that self-confidence has a major impact on artistry—something she learned from personal struggles throughout her career. “Being hypercritical makes a dancer her own worst enemy," says Ringer. “Knowing that you're not defined by any one performance frees you to be the artist you want to be, and people who are able to do that are the most effective performers."

The Dancer's Dilemma

Confidence comes from combining a realistic self-assessment with a strong drive to improve. One big challenge for dancers is developing a clear sense of themselves in the first place. It's hard to gauge your own merits and progress in the traditional ballet school setting, however, where you're taught to rely only on the signals you receive from the person in the front of the room. And in an art form so focused on aesthetics, where everything (your technique, your body, even your hairdo) is measured against a predetermined idea of perfection, self-esteem can take a big hit.

Dr. Brian Goonan, Houston Ballet's psychologist, says students and young professionals are particularly vulnerable to confidence problems. “Early in their careers, dancers don't have a fully developed sense of self yet," he says. “They form their view of themselves based on the perception and feedback of others. And they can end up taking in a lot of negativity."

As a result, ambitious dancers can develop counterproductive behaviors that inhibit progress, such as relentless self-deprecation. “We all talk to ourselves in the third person," says Goonan, “as if there's somebody outside of us saying, 'Stop being so stupid.' Part of it does provide some motivation for improvement, but if it's too frequent it shames more than guides and doesn't help you advance."


Emily Bromberg performing Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.


Ballet's competitive nature can exacerbate the problem, especially if you see dancers around you succeeding. Bromberg fell into the trap of obsessively comparing herself to her classmates as a student, even stressing over inconsequential details, like the length of her eyelashes. It became a major distraction. “I'd look at every other girl in my class and think about how they had it all and I didn't," she says. Unable to trust her own instincts, Bromberg would pester her mother endlessly with questions after performances, fishing for compliments about her appearance as well as her dancing. “Those affirmations made me feel good for a moment, but not for long," she says.

Ultimately, unconfident dancers can develop defeatist attitudes and avoid taking risks out of a fear of failure. Ringer worries when she sees dancers giving up on themselves easily or resisting trying hard steps. “So much of dance is delayed gratification," she says. “If you hold back, you're shortchanging yourself. You've missed an opportunity to improve."

Focus on Your Goal, One Step at a Time

Stopping the vicious cycle of self-doubt begins with the realization that your identity (and worth) is not pinned to how you dance in class or onstage. Learning to not take feedback personally is key, says Goonan. “Corrections are not an attack on who you are," he says. “If you can think of them as being about what you're doing, rather than about you, it creates better health."

Ringer notes that the student/teacher relationship is not a passive one, and that you should both ultimately want the same thing: to make you a better dancer. “You don't just come to class to receive corrections and be told what's good or bad," she says. “You go into it as a partnership, with your own goals as well as the teacher's. It's important to feel like you're on the same path."

Reining in perfectionism can help, too. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, says that the trick is to balance reality against the ideal. “The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it's not actually possible to attain," Johnson says. She advises dancers to measure their goals with what they are equipped with to get there. “Polish your strengths so they're the center of attention, and know what can and can't be done to change your weaknesses."

Summoning up the courage to risk failure is another step in building self-confidence, and it takes practice. But knowing that you've pushed yourself out of your comfort zone will give you a well-deserved boost, along with the resiliency to try again. “It's about giving yourself value," says Ringer. “You're worth it to try, and even if it's not perfection, you've accomplished something."

Bromberg's turning point came when she realized that acknowledging her weaknesses didn't mean giving in to them. Setting her own goals, instead of worrying about how she measured up to others, helped her reignite her ambition and overcome her reliance on positive messages to feel good. Progress, she realized, comes in increments, so she set more realistic goals that she could build upon over time. “Trying your best doesn't mean nailing every turn or jump, but doing and giving everything you can on any given day."

In the topsy-turvy dance world, even the most self-assured principals are dealt disappointing blows. Ultimately, the key to regaining your confidence after the inevitable setbacks is remembering what's driving you to dance in the first place. Without your own passion as your anchor, you become too dependent on other people's approval to feel good. “The ballet world is so fickle," says Ringer. “There are huge highs and huge lows, on an hourly basis. It's important to have a solid sense of self that can ride out the ups and downs."

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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 International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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