Your Best Body: The Secret Performance Enhancer

Caffeine is everywhere. There are Red Bull energy drinks, 5-hour Energy shots, Foosh energy mints, Sheets energy strips that dissolve on the tongue, even AeroShot “breathable caffeine” that gets sucked in like an inhaler.

Most of us assume we should feel guilty about our caffeine habit. But the stimulant is actually loaded with benefits. Professional athletes regularly harness caffeine’s power to improve their performance—and dancers can, too. Imagine it: You’re on stage in the same body, with the same talent, but your concentration is sharper, you have more endurance and vivacity, your feet don’t even hurt quite as much. All it takes is a cup of coffee.

But there’s a catch. Not all caffeine is created equal. You have to calibrate its kick if you want it to work to your advantage.

Your Body On Caffeine

The rush of a latte comes from caffeine stimulating your central nervous system. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, which slows down nerve activity so you rest—it’s the body’s natural chill pill. When adenosine can’t do its job, your muscles and brain stop receiving the usual messages to mellow out, and voilà, you’re ready to tackle 32 fouetté turns.

Depending on how much you drink, caffeine stays in your system for about three to four hours. Heavy caffeine drinkers often fall into a daily morning habit. “When somebody says, ‘Don’t talk to me yet, I haven’t had my coffee,’ they’re going through withdrawal,” explains Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s a pretty safe substance, but it’s addictive.” People who become dependent may feel irritable and drowsy, and could experience headaches or even stomachaches if they don’t get their fix.

Performance Perks
Caffeine’s benefits extend beyond the wake-up call. Because it slightly increases heart and breathing rates, caffeine prepares your body for peak athletic performance. Research has shown that it improves endurance by sparing glycogen, your muscles’ primary fuel source. One study found it reduces the loss of glycogen by as much as 50 percent in the first 15 minutes of exercise, which means your body can go longer before running out of gas.

Caffeine also makes exercise feel easier because it blocks some nerve endings from sending pain signals to the brain. The typical discomfort of holding a développé will diminish, a sore ankle will feel less tender. ?”But that doesn?’t mean you can skip the physical therapist if you?’re injured!?” warns Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian who works with Houston Ballet. Caffeine is no silver bullet to pain relief, but it could be a helpful addition to icing, taking ibuprofen and whatever else you’re doing to work through minor aches or soreness.

In addition, caffeine activates the parts of the brain that control short-term memory, attention and concentration. This means it can help you pick up and remember choreography better. You’ll also feel more alert, better able to focus during a performance.

The Right Stuff

How can you take advantage of all these benefits? Drink one cup of coffee or two cups of tea about 60 to 90 minutes before dancing. (Beware: One cup—8 oz—is a Starbucks “short,” not a “tall.”) Have it with a meal, such as a healthy sandwich and a mixed green salad, for well-rounded fuel—your body needs calories for true physical energy. Plus, if you don’t have any food in your system, coffee’s acid could upset your stomach.

Bypass the souped-up chemical products like Red Bull, and stick to caffeine’s natural plant sources: coffee or tea. “If nutrition science has learned anything, it’s that, just because there’s an active ingredient in something (i.e. caffeine in coffee), when you isolate it and put it in another product, it doesn’t necessarily behave the same way, because it doesn’t have the same supporting cast members around it,” explains Anding.

While tea’s benefits are well-documented—it fights everything from cancer to clogged arteries—coffee also offers a number of health advantages. With about two to four times the caffeine of tea, a cup of joe is loaded with antioxidants and even offers up to one and a half grams of fiber. “There are so many things to worry about and avoid,” says Giancoli. “Coffee shouldn’t be one of them. As long as you don’t have a heart condition or an ulcer, chill out and enjoy it.” Just skip the sugar and reach for skim milk rather than cream.
Contrary to popular belief, coffee and tea don’t dehydrate you. Although there is a mild diuretic effect, regular drinkers adapt to it. More importantly, eight ounces of either beverage provides eight ounces of water. “Studies have shown that because coffee and tea contribute to your fluid intake, there ends up being no decrease in hydration,” says Giancoli. A daily cup of coffee will hardly leech calcium from your bones, either, as long as you maintain your dairy intake. Even adding one to two tablespoons of milk to your cup is enough to offset any negative impact.

This isn’t to say you should start drinking huge amounts. Most nutritionists agree that the upper limit is around 300 milligrams of caffeine a day (about three cups of coffee), depending on your tolerance. Beyond that, you could become shaky, anxious or experience insomnia. Paraphrasing a scientific adage, Anding puts it simply: “The dose determines whether it's medicine or poison.”

Plank Out

One of the quickest ways for dancers to warm up is with a plank: It’s a full-body workout. To make the position even more effective, take a limb off the ground. The fewer points of contact you have with the floor, the more your muscles have to work to support you. Try bringing one hand at a time up to shoulder-height, or picking up one of your feet. You can even give your balance a super challenge by picking up your right hand and left foot at the same time, then switching sides.

Smarter Comfort Food
Ever wonder why you crave ice cream and French fries when you’re stressed? Whenever the body senses anxiety, it releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which stimulates cravings for energy-dense foods. Your cavewoman instincts are making sure you’re properly fueled to fight or flee possible danger. The next time you feel the urge to smother your stress in bacon, try munching on these foods instead:
-Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits contain high levels of vitamin C, which can reduce cortisol levels.
-Complex carbs such as whole grain cereal, bread and oatmeal help stabilize blood sugar and prompt the brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that eases stress.

-Nuts or fatty fish such as salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids that help stabilize hormone levels and prevent mood swings.

Soothe The Burn

A leotard strap digging into sunburned shoulders can ruin an entire day of class and rehearsals. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to undo the damage. But you can lessen the pain with a few easy steps suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
1. Keep your skin cool and moist. Lather up in aloe or moisturizer, and keep a damp towel nearby to apply to your skin whenever you have a break.
2. Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen.
3. Avoid the temptation to pop blisters, and be gentle with peeling skin—you could slow down the healing process.
4. Next weekend, use more sunscreen!

It’s Tasty, Too!
Every so often the health gods smile down on us, and something decadent is actually good for our bodies. Nutritional yeast, the trendy dietitian-approved health food, is filled with B vitamins and is a complete protein. It’s also low in fat and sodium, and free of sugar, dairy and gluten. But you’d never guess its wholesomeness. The powder or flakes have a nutty flavor that tastes just like Parmesan cheese.
What Is It? A deactivated yeast made by culturing yeast with a sugar cane and beet molasses mixture.
Where To Buy It: The supplements aisle of most health food stores.
How To Eat It: Sprinkle some on popcorn, or add it to a stir-fry, roasted vegetables or pasta.

Protect Your Feet
Small wounds like splits on your feet can be prime infection spots for plantar warts. Caused by a virus that thrives in warm, moist environments, these bothersome warts often grow under calluses and are painful to dance on. Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers, advises patients not to use self-treatments such as over-the-counter salicylic acids, which can injure the surrounding skin and cause the wart to spread. Instead, cover the wart with duct tape during the day and apply a foot antiperspirant such as Mintoes before going to bed to buy time until you can see a podiatrist to undergo a more aggressive treatment. The best way to prevent plantar warts is to avoid going barefoot in the studio or theater, and to keep your feet clean and dry after dancing.

Train Like A Pro
Every day, whether she dances or not, Miami City Ballet principal Mary Carmen Catoya does a little Pilates and a little Gyrokinesis. “Not necessarily the whole routine,” she says, “but enough to bring everything back into balance. When a ballet works one muscle or one side too much, the body starts to complain. I need to even it out.” Catoya changes her cross-training regimen depending on what she’s dancing: “It’s different for Giselle than it is for Don Q or for Ballet Imperial. If you have a lot of partnering, you need to work more on your arms; if you’re performing something with a lot of small jumps, you need to strengthen your feet.” How does Catoya determine what parts need extra toning? “The first time after rehearsing a piece, wherever you’re sore tells you exactly where you need to work.”

Boost Your Creativity

Attention, budding dancemakers! There’s a new cure for choreographer’s block. Researchers in the Netherlands recently discovered a simple trick to get the creative juices flowing: Break a habit. It can be as mundane as pouring milk in your breakfast bowl before the cereal. Actively shaking up our typical patterns stretches our cognitive flexibility. The mind sees more possibilities—and we become more inventive artists.

Iron Woman
Feel like you don’t have the energy to make it through class? Fatigue, headaches and poor stamina are all signs of iron deficiency. Iron is essential to dancers. It helps our muscles receive, store and use oxygen. Without adequate amounts, both our physical and mental function is impaired. Yet insufficient iron is the number one nutritional deficiency in the United States.

Make sure you’re getting enough. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends 15 to 18 milligrams a day for women, and 8 to 11 milligrams for men. The richest sources include lean red meat, poultry, salmon, tuna, dried beans and fruits, eggs and whole grains. What’s tricky is that our bodies absorb the iron found in meat more easily than iron from plants. If you’re vegetarian, remember to eat foods rich in vitamin C, which helps to increase iron absorption.

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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.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

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Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

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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