Photo by Christian Peacock, modeled by Carmela Mayo

3 Exercises for More Coordinated Pirouettes

Whether you're aiming for effortless pirouettes onstage or trying not to bump into furniture while training at home, we all want sailing, suspended turns. While many components go into a controlled pirouette—a powerful preparation, a balanced relevé, a stable core and well-placed arms—your whole body must be a strong, solid unit to maintain your position against gravitational and centrifugal forces as you turn.

Kendall Alway, PT, DPT, a former professional dancer and owner of SF Performing Arts Physical Therapy, which treats dancers from San Francisco Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet, says she usually spots weakness in dancers' cores and then upper bodies. "If your upper body is not strong enough—around your scapular stabilizers, around your shoulder blades and your upper back—then you can't really stay sufficiently in one piece to do the turn," she says. The domino effect follows: "If you don't have sufficient strength to counterbalance the weight of the arms, then you're more likely to collapse in the lower and upper back. When you collapse that way, then your pelvis tilts."

Kendall Alway, smiles, while standing in her physical therapy studio next to a wall equipped with resistance springs.

Kendall Alway, PT, DPT

Photo by Christian Peacock

Alway recommends the following conditioning exercises for better pirouettes. They can be done at home or in the studio, and target multiple muscle groups at once. "None of these exercises isolate," says Alway. "They really force you to bring your whole body into alignment, and that's the important thing for the pirouette."

Pirouette Perfecter

What it works: This full-body strengthener targets the deep hip rotators, psoas, obliques, hamstrings, glutes and scapular stabilizers to promote stability while you're spinning.

What you need: Foam roller, or another item that is approximately 6 inches tall

A .gif showing the steps of exercise "Part I: From Devant" as described below.

Photos by Christian Peacock, modeled by Carmela Mayo

Part 1: From Devant

Starting position: Lie on your back and put your ankles on top of the foam roller, positioned horizontally. Legs should be straight and gently turned out, while your hands rest on your shoulders with your elbows near your waist.

  1. Bridge your hips up so that your pelvis is lifted off the ground and your body is in a straight line, taut like an arrow.
  2. Lift your right leg up 90 degrees towards the ceiling, maintaining the lift of the hips.
  3. Keeping the right leg pointing to the ceiling and your hips lifted, rotate the body in one piece to the left so that you are facing the side wall and your leg is now in an à la seconde position. With the hips and core lifted off the ground to maintain the straight line of the body and leg on the roller, your left shoulder will be taking weight while the left hand stays tucked into the body out of the way. The right palm can come across the body to the floor to help stabilize. (While changing facings, imagine that a string from the ceiling holds your raised foot in one place while you rotate it within your hip socket to face the wall.)
  4. From that position, complete the next series of slow, controlled movements: Enveloppé the right leg into a turned-out passé, then turn the passé in, turn it out again, and développé back out so the right leg is in à la seconde once more.
  5. Keeping your hips lifted, return in one piece to your back so that the leg is devant again and both arms are tucked into the starting position. Lower the right leg back to the foam roller, then lower the hips.
  6. Repeat on the left side. Do 2 sets on each side.
A .gif showing the steps of exercise "Part 2: From Derri\u00e8re" as described below.

Photos by Christian Peacock, modeled by Carmela Mayo

Part 2: From Derrière

Starting position: Lie on your stomach with your ankles on the foam roller. Transition into a plank position on your elbows. Make sure the hips, shoulders and ankles are in one line. (Avoid lifting the hips too high—you shouldn't be in a pike position.)

  1. Lift the right leg into arabesque. In derrière, Alway says, the arabesque likely won't lift 90 degrees to the ceiling behind you, but keep it as high as possible.
  2. Keeping the hips lifted, rotate your body in one piece, moving from arabesque to à la seconde. The left arm maintains the low plank on the elbow, while the right arm can stay across your body with the fingertips lightly on the floor to help stabilize you. For a greater challenge, you can raise the right arm to the ceiling as you would in a side plank.
  3. Rotate back to arabesque. Lower the right leg back to the foam roller, then lower the hips.
  4. Repeat on the left side. Do 2 sets on each side.

Shoulder Stabilizer

What it works: This exercise strengthens the shoulders' rotator cuffs, your lats and scapular stabilizers, strengthening the carriage of the arms in a turn so that they don't throw you out of alignment.

What you need: Medium-weight resistance band

Starting position: Stand in parallel. Holding both ends of the band, bring your arms up to a Y position overhead. (Your hands should be about 2 feet apart.)

A .gif showing the steps of exercise "Shoulder Stabilizer" as described below.

Photos by Christian Peacock, modeled by Carmela Mayo

  1. Lift the right leg into a parallel coupé or passé so that you're balanced on the left leg.
  2. Keeping both arms straight and the arm of the standing leg pointing towards the ceiling, pull the right arm down toward the side of your body against the band's resistance so that it's parallel to the floor. Bring the band in front of your face as you lower it, and your arm should be slightly in front of your body as well, as an arm in a classically placed second position would be.
  3. Slowly return to the Y position.
  4. As you lower and raise the arm, keep a buttoned-up feeling between your ribs and core. Alway says it's crucial that the back doesn't arch and the ribs don't splay outward. If you're struggling to keep the body in one piece, don't lower your arm as far.
  5. Do 10–15 reps, balancing on the left leg the whole time, then switch to the other lifted leg and working arm.

Tendus Against Resistance

What it works: This exercise teaches you to engage your psoas, deep hip rotators and anterior and oblique abs to better position and stabilize the pelvis, which are necessary when pushing off for turns and maintaining a high relevé throughout.

What you need: Medium-weight resistance band

Starting position: With a resistance band tied in a circle around something stable, like a couch leg or with the knot closed in a doorway, loop the band around the right ankle and stand in first position, facing away from the anchored end of the band. This attachment point should be directly behind you, centered between the two legs, and the band should be taut.

A .gif showing the steps of exercise "Tendus Against Resistance" as described below.

Photos by Christian Peacock, modeled by Carmela Mayo

  1. In slow, controlled movements, complete a series of tendus with the right leg en croix—front, side, back, side—working against the resistance. (In tendu derrière, the resistance will be on the way in, not out.)
  2. While completing the tendus, note how easy it is for the body to sway and rotate in reaction to the resistance. Engage your core and stay lifted on top of the standing leg to keep the pelvis still with each movement. Make sure to lift up and work from your turnout muscles.
  3. Do 4 sets, then repeat on the left side.

Try It Out

Follow along as Alway coaches San Francisco Ballet corps member Carmela Mayo through the exercises.

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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."

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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.

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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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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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