Your Best Body: Defy Your DNA

Part of what makes the spectacle of ballet so astonishing is the way dancers' bodies seem to defy the laws of physics. To the average onlooker, a ballerina can effortlessly lift her leg to her ear while balancing on her toes; she can soar so high it looks like she can fly. But in accomplishing these seemingly magical feats, there's actually little magic involved. Instead, they take a whole lot of hard work.

Even the most talented dancers aren't born with perfect ballet bodies. But no matter what you struggle with, there are practical ways to reach the maximum potential within your set of genetic limits. Instead of forcing your turnout at the knees or lifting your hip to yank your leg higher, use these techniques to reach your absolute best.


Tackle Your Turnout
Having a narrow range of turnout affects everything from your first plié to the last grand jeté, since every movement in ballet starts with the outward rotation of the legs. And this problem is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it's largely
determined by the hips you're born with. “Turnout is controlled by capsular laxity and joint orientation—how the femur bone is put into the hips," explains Megan Richardson, a senior certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at PT Plus in New York.

To achieve your maximum rotation, start by finding proper alignment. Shannon Bresnahan, a teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, says the pelvis should be lifted and in a neutral position, so there's still a slight natural curve in your lower back.

Next, you need to locate the correct muscles—squeezing everything in your backside will actually limit your turnout. Instead, you want to strengthen the hips' external rotators. These muscles can be tricky to find, however. To help dancers locate them, Richardson tells her clients to make a fish face, and then mimic it with their other cheeks. “Everything around the rotators should be fairly soft," she says. “It's like a Jell-O mold: firm on the inside and kind of jiggly on the outside." To strengthen these muscles, Richardson has dancers practice rotating from parallel to turnout while wearing socks on a slick surface, like your kitchen floor.

Maggie Small, a dancer at Richmond Ballet, has found that making certain artistic choices can give the illusion of more turnout. Even things as small as doing a tendu derrière instead of B-plus can help hide the heel of her back leg.

Boost Your Balance
Trying to build up your balance? If you're struggling at the end of barre exercises, don't just keep wobbling: You haven't yet found the proper position. “Hold the barre, push against the floor to get to the top of your muscle tone and stretch upwards," Bresnahan says. “It doesn't do any good to wobble around."

Luckily, balance is highly trainable—even if it doesn't come naturally. “Dancers tend to be really visually dominant," says Richardson. “So to improve the fastest, practice by taking the eyes away." She advises balancing on one leg (in both turnout and parallel) for 30 to 60 seconds with your eyes open, and then closed. Once you feel strong enough, try the same thing standing on a pillow or wobble disk.

Emulating onstage conditions can also help. Face away from the mirror sometimes to feel where your body is in space, and play with darker or really bright lighting. “It will decrease your reliance on the eyes for balance," says Richardson. “And it trains the proprioceptors in your joints and skin, as well as the vestibular system (the area of the brain responsible for balance)."

Increase Extension
Every dancer dreams of floating her leg up to her ear, but time spent in the splits isn't enough to make it a reality. “Someone who can put their leg up there with their hand isn't necessarily able to développé it there," points out Richardson. “Extension requires both flexibility and strength."

And it's not just about the working leg: The primary area you need to strengthen is actually your core. “The first muscle to activate when we move our legs is the transverse abdominis (the deep abdominal muscle)," explains Richardson. To strengthen it, Richardson says, lie on your back with your pelvis in neutral position, knees bent, feet on the floor. Keeping your pelvis and ribs still, draw your stomach down to the floor and up toward your chest—think of drawing the pelvic bones together and scooping the abdomen into a “bowl." Holding this position, lift one shin up to tabletop position, then the other. Dip one foot down to the floor (moving your leg from the hip, not the knee). Return to tabletop, and repeat on the other side. Then place one leg at a time back down on the floor in starting position. Repeat that entire sequence, performing a total of two to three sets of ten.

Even if your extension doesn't reach much past 90 degrees, proper execution can still make it look striking. Bresnahan says to be sure you're really stretching the leg to its maximum from the hip to the end of your shoe. “Most important," she says, “especially if the leg isn't as high, is that the line of the foot is beautiful."

Jump Higher
Catching some air at the height of a leap is one of the greatest joys of dancing. The secret to achieving a jump like that is plyometric training. In this technique (which athletes across disciplines have used for decades to increase their force and speed), you allow the muscles to reach their optimum stretch in plié and then use the natural recoil to launch the body up quickly. “Jumping is the ability to produce really fast power," says Richardson.

The good news is that the 200-plus jumps you do every day in class already train your body in this highly efficient method. But it's the way you mentally approach those jumps that makes the difference. “As you reach the bottom of a good, healthy plié (with your heels on the ground), think of exploding up off the floor," Richardson says. You can also add plyometrics to your cross-training routine. Do two double leg hops forward in a row, traveling as far as you can. At the end of the second hop, jump up vertically as high as you can from both legs. Repeat this five times in a row, doing two or three sets total. To advance the exercise, go from one leg instead of two on the last vertical jump. Richardson emphasizes the importance of landing toe-ball-heel with your knees aligned over the middle of your foot, and making sure to keep your upper body still as you jump.

Limitations to your dancer DNA don't have to mean curtains for your dream career. Richmond Ballet's Small has succeeded by making sure her technique is grounded in performing steps properly and working with the best of what she has. “Keep persevering," she says. “Seek advice from people with more knowledge, because there's no substitute for experience."

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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."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

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