Home Schooling: A Personal Decision

Kiara Howe, 14, lives in Olympia, Washington, about a two-hour drive each way from her ballet classes at Oregon Ballet Theatre. She believes her dreams of dancing for American Ballet Theatre would be even further away if she had to fit in her commute around a regular school day. Instead, Kiara learns reading, writing and arithmetic in her own home.

Home-schooled children do their academic studies at home under the instruction of a parent or professional tutor or teach themselves with the help of correspondence courses. Controversial and not supported by many traditional educators, home schooling has had little research to prove it’s good—or bad—for students. Plus, it doesn’t guarantee a professional career in ballet. It therefore remains a very personal choice.

In the world of ballet, which requires huge amounts of training time for a professional career that can start as young as age 15, home schooling can be a way for students to get an academic education and also devote more time to ballet.

“It’s pretty much the same as regular school, except it’s just me and the teacher,” says Chase Finlay, 14, a student at Ballet Academy East in New York City who spends three hours a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with an academic tutor. “I have so much more time for ballet.”

This decision should not be made lightly, and those who opt for home schooling do so for many reasons. Not having to spend six hours a day in school means more time for private lessons or extra ballet classes. Home schooling is flexible, allowing dancers to get a jump on a long commute to ballet class or sleep in on days following late-night performances.

Teenage dancers, particularly boys, can be unhappy in a traditional school setting where teasing runs rampant. Home-schooled dancers say they have more physical energy than their peers in regular school and don’t have to worry about tests or doing homework at 11 pm.

“It freed up my schedule, allowed me to take company class, gave me more breaks. I took my schoolwork to the studio and did it around classes,” says Michael Bearden, 24, a soloist with Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “It was kind of like being a child actor, but not as glamorous.”

Realistic or not, some parents are looking to give their children any advantage possible when struggling toward that elusive professional ballet career and are willing to accept the risk of putting all their eggs in one basket.

“I had gotten good feedback from Erica’s ballet teachers,” says Mary Ellen Pereira of Long Island about her 16-year-old daughter, a student at Ballet Academy East. “They said she had a chance at a career. If this was a hobby for her, I would not go this route, but seeing she had the potential, ability and body to become a ballerina, I began to look into home schooling.”

Just a few years ago, home-schooled students were rare, most stayed home because of religious or moral considerations. But that’s changing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2004 about 1.1 million children (or 2.2 percent of all children aged 5 to 17) were home schooled, a jump of almost 30 percent from 1999.

Parents of ballet students say they did extensive research on the different curricula available and had endless talks with other parents who home school. Kristen Ni, 16, a student of Nutmeg Conservatory of the Arts in Connecticut, says her mother was against the idea until Kristen found a challenging correspondence program from Indiana University.

Chase’s mom, Jeanne Finlay, admits, “I was scared stiff.” She now feels the decision is working out well, not only for Chase, who is an A student, but also for his older sister, Page, now an apprentice with OBT. “I started ballet late, at age 10,” says Page. “With home schooling, I could take private class, and it was very beneficial to my ballet career.”

Even with sights set on becoming a professional dancer, parents and students alike admit the importance of academics. What about an injury? What if ballet just doesn’t work out? By keeping track of their work or taking correspondence tests, most home schoolers are able to get a certified high school diploma.

Home schooled since first grade, Ballet West’s Bearden was accepted at the University of Utah, but he says he found it difficult to adjust to “having a teacher and lots of assignments” and subsequently dropped out. But after five years as a professional dancer, he realizes the importance of an academic education, even to a dancer. “I see people retiring from the company at age 35, and they don’t know what they are going to do next. That will be me in 15 years,” Bearden  says. “I need to get cracking.” He is now pursing a degree at a community college.

Some parents take their children out of regular school in pursuit of academic excellence. Phyllis Papa, director of Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre in New Jersey, home schooled her twins, Janelle and Tamara de Ment. “I knew I wanted to be responsible for my children’s educations,” says Papa.

A member of ABT at age 15, Papa herself had quit school and continued her high school studies through correspondence courses. In teaching the twins and their two sisters, Papa wove together lessons in violin, math, reading, gymnastics, etiquette and history in a free-form approach that obviously worked for the twins, who graduated last year at age 18 from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. They are now both pursuing professional ballet careers.

“It wasn’t the way you know school. We learned from the minute we woke up till we went to bed,” Papa says. “The idea of teaching is to make it joyous, not about testing.”

But home schooling is not the answer for everyone. It’s frowned upon by the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association. Many educators fear home schooled children miss out on social interaction with their peers, can become isolated or suffer academically from a lack of professional instructors.

Sharon Dante, founder and artistic director of Nutmeg Conservatory, has had many discussions with incoming students about home schooling. As a preprofessional boarding school, Nutmeg students have the option of attending the local Torrington public school system, which Dante highly recommends. She feels students need to be in a structured academic environment where they can benefit from the knowledge, nurturing and guidance of the entire school faculty.

With 40-plus years in dance education, Dante worries about ballet students put in an “incubator” in which their entire lives are centered around ballet.

“They need to meet people who are not dancers. Most want to be in a professional company, but we need to give them all the weapons we can to face the real world if that does not happen,” says Dante, who was a professional dancer and received a degree in business from Endicott College. “I like it when they have a somewhat normal life for at least part of the day. In my opinion, the students are much more healthy if they go to regular school.”

Those involved agree that home schooling is an individual choice that isn’t right for everyone. Even within families, sometimes one child is home schooled while siblings are not. If the child is not self-motivated, or is very outgoing and social, home schooling may not be the answer.

And, the dancers say, home schooling is just as demanding as traditional schools. Grammar and chemistry and algebra are all difficult, even if you get to sit on your bed and do it in your pajamas. “At first it sounded really easy,” Erica says. “But when I got the work, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. My mother is harder than most teachers I had before.”

Karen White, a former daily newspaper reporter, now writes for magazines, teaches dance in Taunton, MA, and performs in musicals with regional theater groups.

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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."

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

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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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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

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In a hopeful sign that things may be slowly getting back to normal, Youth America Grand Prix is hosting its 2021 Season Finals live and in person this week in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 800 young dancers will perform at the annual scholarship audition, held May 10–16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Over $400,000 in scholarships will be awarded, with school directors from all over the world adjudicating both in person and online. The entire event will be livestreamed on YAGP's website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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