Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet students in class. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.

Growing Pains: How to Safely Dance Through Growth Spurts

Courtney Henry remembers a time in middle school when she grew several inches just as her dance training began to intensify. Now a member of Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference in Germany, Henry would take dance classes at her school during the day, then have more classes and rehearsal at her studio afterwards. "As a result of this constant expansion in every direction—my hormone levels were growing as well—I remember enduring painful cramps in my lower and upper legs almost every night."

Such pains are typical symptoms of a growth spurt, or rapid growth in a short period of time. While they can happen at any point during childhood, growth spurts are most common during early to mid-adolescence: ages 12 to 13 for girls and 13 to 15 for boys. According to Chris Fisher, a physical therapist for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, height change can sometimes be visible in a one-week period. During such a dramatic phase of development, young dancers need to have extra patience and support surrounding their ballet training.


Warning Signs

Bones and muscles don't always grow at the same rate; as your bones lengthen during a growth spurt, your muscles often struggle to catch up. As a result, you may notice a loss of flexibility, or aching and swelling around the joints, as well as an increased need for sleep and a stronger appetite.

Common injuries Fisher sees among growing dancers include snapping-hip syndrome (from tight hip flexors or IT bands), sacroiliac pain, lax ligaments, pain in the kneecaps from not tracking properly, Achilles tendonitis (due to tight calves) and shin splints. In addition, conditions such as Osgood-Schlatter disease, which affects the growth plate below the kneecap in adolescents, can cause excessive bone pain and inflammation.

You may also experience a temporary loss of coordination. "When young dancers quickly gain a few inches in height, they often don't know what to do with themselves, how to use this extra length," says Kim Marsh, assistant to the school director at the Orlando Ballet School. "Students need to understand this is normal and can be worked through."


Kim Marsh with students. Photo Courtesy Orlando Ballet School.

Listen to Your Body

Though you might be more vulnerable to injury, you can stay healthy during a growth spurt if you listen to your body. "Injuries are not a direct cause of a growth spurt, but they are concurrent with growing people as they are training in ballet," says Dr. Steven J. Anderson, who treats dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet and its school. "Acute injuries are hard to prevent, but chronic issues start gradually."

If pain has been consistent for more than a week, Anderson advises simple measures such as icing, cutting back on strenuous movements (like pointework, jumps and lifts), or taking ibuprofen. If the pain persists or escalates when you work back to your normal routine, see a doctor or physical therapist. Anderson notes that any aches or pains that last longer than a week or are accompanied by swelling, loss of joint motion, numbness or instability warrant a trip to a medical professional. "If you wait too long, saying to yourself 'I can work through the pain,' you may end up with a stress fracture," says Anderson. Don't be shy about letting your teachers or parents know that you're feeling tighter than normal or experiencing new aches and pains.

A healthy diet helps too. When Henry learned that potassium, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium could help her rapidly growing body, she began to eat more green, leafy vegetables, beets, sweet potatoes, yogurt, black beans and fish. Good nutrition, plus a summer off, helped her recover from a bout of stress fractures in her shins and deal with persistent leg cramps. Don't skip out on sleep or meals, as growing bodies need both rest and fuel.

Get Back to Basics

Rapidly growing dancers should approach class with added awareness. Fisher notes that imbalances in muscle length can cause dancers to compensate in their technique. Jumping can irritate a rapidly changing body, particularly in areas where there are growth plates. Rolling in your feet, sinking excessively into your lower back or, for male dancers, leaning back too far during a lift, are examples of technical shortcuts that can leave you open to injury.

As hard as it may be, avoid comparing yourself to your classmates. "You have to use your turnout, not someone else's," says Marsh, "and this is even more true when you are going through a growth spurt, when alignment is everything. You have to focus on strengthening this new body: finding placement, proper use of turnout, core strength, incremental stretching for extra-tight muscles, and coordination."

While you can still stretch, this is not the time to do it excessively. Marsh insists that flexibility and strength will eventually come back with patience and smart work, and that your muscles and tendons need time to catch up to your bones. In the meantime, you can work on your port de bras, plié, pelvic placement and controlling your jump landings (rather than focusing on jump height). You may also need to work in ballet slippers during pointe class to find more control.

If you have to step away or modify class for a while, you can still maintain your fitness with Pilates, floor barre or swimming. As you progressively build new strength and flexibility, use this time to play with rhythm, have fun with presentation and develop your artistry.

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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."

Michael Cairns, Courtesy Orlando Ballet

Returning to Live Audiences: How 4 Companies Have Gotten Back Onstage

Performing in front of live audiences again has been every ballet organization's goal since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago. With vaccinations on the rise and light appearing at the end of the tunnel, companies are slowly starting to come back to in-person shows.

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#TBT: Antoinette Sibley in "Cinderella" (1969)

With its fairytale magic and ludicrous stepsisters, Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is full of whimsy and charm. The choreography is also playfully challenging with quirky, intricate phrasing that illuminates Prokofiev's score. Antoinette Sibley, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, revels in the challenges as the titular Cinderella. A master of speed and staccato, Sibley is a frothy delight in her Act II variation in this clip from 1969.

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