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Staying Home for the Summer: Tips for Creating a DIY Intensive

It is easy to feel as though the entire ballet year revolves around summer: more hours in the day for dance, and another summer intensive to add to your resumé. You've likely dreamt about which program you want to attend, traveled to auditions and gotten excited about the new challenges in a big city school. But what if you find yourself staying home?

It can feel heartbreaking to watch your peers take off for their intensives. Whether you're staying home by choice or because of injury or finances, you can still improve and have fun at your local studio. Unlike those headed off to big intensives, you have flexibility and money on your side. Jody Skye Schissler, owner of Skye Ballet Center in Herndon, Virginia, encourages dancers to start by asking, "How can you make your summer more focused on yourself and what you need for your future?" Here are tips for making the most of your time at home.


Home Studio Advantages

JonMarie Johnson in a summer class at Louisville Ballet School, her home studio

Kateryna Sellers, Courtesy Louisville Ballet

Look at it this way: It takes a while for the dust to settle at a big intensive. For the first week or two of classes, dancers are being evaluated for level place- ment, settling into dorm life and forming early relationships with other students and teachers. There's a lot of distraction and uncertainty to get through before you develop a feeling of routine. When you train locally, those unknowns don't necessarily apply.

Last year, Louisville Ballet School student JonMarie Johnson decided to stay home because she was leaving for college that fall and a summer program proved cost-prohibitive. But Johnson, who had previously attended intensives at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, quickly recognized the benefits. "You have the advantage of being more immediately comfortable in the situation," she says. "It sounds silly, but even the comfort level you have in the studio space itself contributes to your improvement."

Johnson also appreciated training with a small group of 20 dancers and with teachers who knew her and what she needed most. "I think I improved more that summer than I ever had before," she says. Schissler says that, at her own studio, she can give her students opportunities that large intensives don't have the flexibility to do. "Last summer I had three-hour technique classes," she says. "Their improvement was incredible because we had so much time and I know them all so well."

Build a Custom Training Program 

Between tuition and housing, a summer intensive can cost your family upwards of $6,000. If possible, Schissler recommends creating add-ons to your regular dance classes with some of the money you save. "Get a mem- bership at your local gym and give swimming a try," she says. "It is great for stamina and endurance, and it is an opportunity you won't have at a summer intensive."

You could also consider signing up for weekly private or group lessons in Pilates, Gyrotonic or yoga. And the summer months offer more time to seek out local master classes or workshops (if not at your school, than perhaps at a nearby studio). Or, consider supplementing your ballet training with classes in other genres, like modern, contemporary, tap, improvisation or even acting.

Go Back to Basics

Yuka Iseda in the peasant pas de trois from Swan Lake

Adrian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Whether you are staying home because of an injury or not, summertime presents an excellent opportunity to get back

to the basics of your training. Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Yuka Iseda recommends taking open classes in a lower level. She says doing so gives her time to focus on breaking simpler movement down correctly, which then helps her perform bet- ter in more complicated combinations.

Schissler suggests asking your studio director if you can assist teaching lower levels. "Helping teach little ones helps you so much in your own dancing," she says. "You become
a smarter dancer." By learning to explain proper turnout to a 6-year-old, you may come to approach it differently yourself.

Take a Break 

As a student in Japan, Iseda often used her summer off-time (which is shorter than in the U.S.) to allow her body to heal— something she continues today. "I think that ballet is such hard work and sometimes you just need a break," she says. This could be particularly useful if you're nursing an injury. By taking time out of the studio, focusing on lower-level open classes and cross-training, Iseda finds that the imbalances in her body begin to right themselves and she feels better when she gets back into ballet full force.

Johnson, who will be a sophomore dance major at University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, is looking forward to going home to Louisville again this summer. Training locally, she says, doesn't mean that you won't have opportuni- ties to improve. "It is important to keep in mind that you make the program what it is and you put in the work and effort to excel," says Johnson. By staying focused and getting creative with your training, you can make your summer worthwhile.

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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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

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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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