When not in rehearsal, Hansen studies business at DePaul University. Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

Dancing Towards a Degree: Elizabeth Hansen's Double Duty as a Business Major and Joffrey Ballet Dancer

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Pointe.

As dancers, we give everything we have to our careers. We dedicate so much time and energy to our greatest passion in life that we often forget it won't last forever. But at some point we need to plan for life after ballet. After several years at the Joffrey Ballet, I felt it was time to make some concrete plans for the future. Family members began asking what I wanted to do after my ballet career, and I'd reply, “I have absolutely no idea." Since I've wanted to earn a degree, I decided college would be the best place to figure it out.

About two years ago, I enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago. It has an excellent adult program that provides faculty mentors and career counselors, along with a flexible class schedule. Going to school part-time while dancing full-time has been challenging, yet very rewarding—happily, I am now halfway toward attaining my bachelor's degree.


When I started at DePaul, I didn't have a particular focus or major in mind. I began with an attitude of exploration. As dancers, we tend to focus all of our energy on our classes and rehearsals and sometimes overlook the outside world. I wanted to learn new subjects and gain skills in areas where I had little experience. I've had a blast completing assignments such as analyzing The Beatles' music, or writing a social media marketing plan. Each class has opened up my mind to new ideas and concepts. Not only has this exposure helped me find a new career path, it's given texture to my artistry. For instance, last year I took a class called Global Leadership that dealt with navigating cultural diversity in the business world. Since the Joffrey is very internationally diverse, it helped me relate better to my peers in the studio. But more than that, it cultivated empathy and compassion, helping me appreciate cultural differences on a deeper level. I now try to bring that out through my dancing.

While I attend classes on campus during the summer when I have time off, during the season I complete all of my classes online. That gives me the flexibility necessary for working around a busy performing schedule. Online learning lets me take things at my own pace, though I often wish I could be in the classroom with other students—I meet so many interesting people through DePaul's program.

College is a major time commitment, and I've had to get creative when organizing my schedule. I sneak in study time throughout the workday: during the 15-minute break after company class, my lunch hour and any breaks between rehearsals. I study in the evenings and on weekends as well, and even find that long days at the theater bring opportunities to do homework. From time to time, I've even watched a live lecture on my computer while sewing a pair of pointe shoes! Taking two classes at a time is enough to give me momentum, yet not more than I can handle. And I always try to work in some downtime, such as a meal out with friends or a manicure. With such a packed schedule, it's important to make time for relaxation.

After taking a wide variety of classes, I decided to major in business. While somewhat of a radical shift from dance, I really enjoy this subject in part because it's so different from what I currently do. The fact that business is a broad field requiring a range of skills appeals to me. I loved taking economics and statistics because they're so practical and logical. Just like I wake up my muscles during barre, through my schooling I'm waking up other parts of my brain—I now see how the deliberate, step-by-step process I use to approach dancing is applicable to my future degree. Ultimately, my goal is to work in arts administration, in either development or operations. My dance experience will give me an edge, because I also understand the artistic side of the business.

Of course, I couldn't do this alone. I'm very thankful for the support of the Joffrey's artistic staff, particularly artistic director Ashley Wheater. They've not only encouraged me to pursue a degree, but take an interest in my studies. Several of my coworkers are in college, too—one of whom, Raul Casasola, has become an important part of my support system. He's studying journalism, and the two of us sit together and do homework in a small, sunny conference room in our building. Everyone knows that when we're in our “office," it's study time! I love that I can share my outside life with my Joffrey family—to have my coaches and peers cheer me on provides that extra little push I occasionally need.

So much of my identity has been wrapped up in my career, but college is helping me discover who I fully am. I have talents and interests that I wasn't aware of before, and I now look forward to what the future holds instead of fearing it. When the time comes, I'm confident that I'll be ready to write the next chapter in my life.

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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."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

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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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