All in the Details: How to Break Bad Ballet Habits

There are several technical hurdles that many dancers struggle to overcome, like raised shoulders and floppy wrists. Though they may seem like small details, they can stand between you and your next level—whether that's entry to a prestigious summer intensive, a top score at a competition or even an apprentice position at a coveted company.


These bad habits aren't easy to break; even professionals battle them. Sarah Van Patten, for one, admits that her shoulders sneak up when she's tired, preventing her from fully engaging her back. “I lose that connection and I'm not on top of the movement," says the San Francisco Ballet principal. “It's a habit I have to constantly think about."


Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey finds that no matter how often teachers or coaches point out certain issues, dancers frequently have trouble applying the advice. “I can give the same correction over and over again," she says. “But it's up to the dancer to make the adjustment." Sometimes, it takes a new approach to do the trick.


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Raised Shoulders
What happens: Not only do you lose the look of a long neck, but raised shoulders also make it harder to correctly use your back muscles and core.

Try this: Strengthen your upper back to develop the muscles necessary to properly support your arms. Marianna Lobanova of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, suggests this exercise, repeated daily: Lie facedown on the floor with your arms and legs stretched out. Lift your upper body for at least 10 seconds, moving your arms into fifth position overhead and keeping the lower extremities completely still. Repeat at least three times.

Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, director of The Rock School for Dance Education, who has coached dancers including Beckanne Sisk and Michaela DePrince, warns students to watch their posture outside of the studio. “Encourage your friends to tell you when you're slouching," she says. It will help train your back to support you even when you're feeling tired or tense.

Be careful: Don't lock your shoulders in place. “When there's no movement," Spassoff warns, “you've lost your épaulement."


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Floppy Wrists

What happens: Your wrists droop when your elbows aren't supported or lifted.

Try this: Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet faculty member Simon Ball suggests using imagery to find a balance of strength and softness. “With your arms in first position, feel like you're pressing your forearms on a tabletop," he says. It also helps to think of yourself standing in a shower, with water running down from your shoulders to your elbows, wrists and fingers. “You're creating that slope but also staying lifted," says Ball.

Tracey encourages her students to think about their pinky fingers. “It gives energy to the whole hand," she says. “It's hard to flop around if you're constantly thinking about your little finger."

Be careful: Don't combat floppiness with stiffness. Focus on your breath and “support your arms from underneath with energy," says Spassoff.


Courtesy Dance Magazine

Sickled Feet

What happens: Sickling, or hooking your foot inward, breaks the line of your leg. It can also lead to injury, like a sprained ankle, especially if you land a jump in a sickled position.

Try this: You may be over-pointing, or initiating the point with your little toe instead of your big toe. While doing barre work, look at yourself in the mirror from the side and concentrate on the shape of your working foot. Ball also recommends practicing jumps on a Pilates reformer to help realign your feet and ankles. Think about lengthening your toes in the air and landing evenly on the jumping board.

Be careful: Though you may be concentrating on how big positions look, don't forget about the transitional steps—they're common places for error. Pay special attention when closing into fifth position from tendu front, says Van Patten. “Bring the big toes back so you can train the correct muscles."


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Bent Knee in Arabesque

What happens: By not fully extending your knee in arabesque, you risk shortening your line and not developing the control necessary to improve the position.

Try this: Work on your flexibility and strength. Van Patten takes Gyrotonic classes four times per week and repeats adagio combinations more than once in class. "When I bend my knee, it's usually because I'm striving for a position that I don't have the ability to achieve," she says. "Find the position within your capacity first, and then build on that." Thrusting your leg up will not help. Once you master a low arabesque with a straight knee, you can try lifting it higher in each class. "Only correct work will help you improve," warns Lobanova.

Be careful: Don't fudge the position by winging your back foot. "Instead of just straightening your knee, think of a line of energy extending beyond your toes and reaching a wall," says Ball. "That will help you feel the right sensation."



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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."

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