Your Training: The Hometown Advantage

It's the American dream, ballet-style: A small-town girl works hard, turns heads in the big city and wins her way to the top of a world-class company. Teresa Reichlen is one such story: Before joining New York City Ballet, she studied at The Russell School of Ballet in Chantilly, VA. “It's nice to be a big fish in a small pond to start out," she says. Instead of always dancing in the corps, “you get to perform the challenging parts."


Several small studios around the country are producing professional-caliber dancers. These schools may not receive the same publicity as their counterparts with companies or boarding schools attached, but they prove that you don't need high-profile training to make it as a dancer. In fact, the extra attention, performance opportunities and lower-stress environment might be what you need to grow—not just as a dancer, but as an artist.

Greenwich Ballet Academy
Greenwich, CT, and Port Chester, NY
GBA has only been around since 2006, but its strong Vaganova training (modeled after the Vaganova and Bolshoi academies' eight-year program) is unique in the region. Students get lots of one-on-one attention—classes only have 4 to 15 students. Plus, the studio's close proximity to New York City means that guest teachers such as American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko and NYCB legend Allegra Kent can easily drop in for the day.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, modern, contemporary ballet, men's class, character, yoga
Number of students: 105 (audition required)
Performances per year: Two or three
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix
Alumni: Kelsey Connolly (Juilliard)
Fun fact: The Port Chester loft-like studios used to be a Fruit of the Loom factory.

Alexandra Ballet
Chesterfield, MO
Founded in 1949, Alexandra Ballet has made a reputation for itself through Regional Dance America—the school's pre-professional company recently represented RDA's Mid-States Regional Ballet Association at the 2010 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS. Alexandra Ballet also keeps up a connection with Cincinnati Ballet, whose dancers often give master classes and perform with students.
Classes: Ballet, modern, character, pointe, pas de deux, men's class, variations, Pilates
Number of students: 200 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Up to 12
Competitions: The school doesn't emphasize competitions, but supports students who compete.
Alumni: Louise Nadeau (former PNB principal), Antonio Douthit (Alvin Ailey), Rodney Hamilton (Ballet Hispanico), Makensie Howe and Dillon Malinski (Houston Ballet II)
Fun fact: The school was recently filmed for a British documentary called SwanSong, about Alexandra Ballet alum Ian Archer-Watters (former Les Ballets Grandiva dancer).

Metropolitan Ballet Academy
Jenkintown, PA
MBA students benefit from an inside connection to Pennsylvania Ballet: Led by former PAB assistant ballet mistress Lisa Collins Vidnovic, the faculty includes several current and former PAB dancers and artistic staff, including the artistic director of the second company.
Classes: Ballet, modern, jazz, repertoire, pas de deux, men's class
Number of students: 375 (no audition required)
Performances per year: At least nine
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix
Alumni: Phoebe Gavula (Pennsylvania Ballet II)
Fun fact: MBA has a special Boys' Scholarship Program with more than 60 boys enrolled.

Southland Ballet Academy
Fountain Valley and Irvine, CA
Students at this California studio gain connections all over the world—SBA regularly brings in top master teachers, such as Royal Ballet School director Gailene Stock, NYCB principal Megan Fairchild and even Kirov director Yury Fateyev.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, pas de deux, men's class, Russian character, modern, stretch, Pilates, jazz, hip hop
Number of students: 400 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Three
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix, Prix de Lausanne, USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Helsinki International Ballet Competition
Alumni: Bryn Gilbert (Ballet Memphis), Jamie Kopit (ABT apprentice), Kirby Wallis (Ballet Austin), Jade Payette (The Washington Ballet), Quenby Hersh (Scottish Ballet)
Fun fact: Southland students are loyal: The school (now almost 30 years old) currently has third-generation students—the grandchildren of some of its original dancers!

The Russell School of Ballet
Chantilly, VA
Directors Karla and Hans Petry, the husband and wife team at The Russell School, offer a nurturing environment, and students and teachers become close in this tight-knit community.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, variations, character, jazz, tap, modern, lyrical, stretch
Number of students: 375–400 (audition required for higher-level classes)
Performances per year: Three
Competitions: No
Alumni: Teresa Reichlen (NYCB principal), Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch (Martha Graham Dance Company principal), Ian Thatcher (formerly with SFB, PNB and Ballets de Monte Carlo)
Fun fact: The school is beginning its 47th year.

Westside Ballet
Santa Monica, CA
Westside students have a direct link to George Balanchine himself: Director Yvonne Mounsey was an NYCB principal under the choreographer, so she teaches his style as she learned it firsthand.
Classes: Ballet, jazz, pointe, pas de deux, variations
Number of students: 390 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Two
Competitions: No
Alumni: Andrew Veyette (NYCB principal), Melissa Barak (choreographer), Anna Liceica (former ABT soloist), Kylee Kitchens (PNB)
Fun facts: This past summer, New York's School of American Ballet held a two-week summer session at Westside Ballet.

International Ballet School
Littleton, CO
IBS takes the “international" element of its name seriously, inviting former Bolshoi and Paris Opéra Ballet dancers to teach master classes, and producing stylistically versatile students who go on to dance all over the world—from Monaco to Switzerland to Germany.
Classes: Ballet, character, contemporary, pointe, variations
Number of students: 60 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Two, plus outreach
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix, Prix de Lausanne, World Ballet Competition
Alumni: Erin McAffee (The Joffrey Ballet), Anisa Scott (Dresden SemperOper Ballet)
Fun fact: IBS has recently begun purchasing sets and costumes from companies like London Festival Ballet and Houston Ballet. In a recent Peter Pan production, the school rented rigging so that the dancers could fly onstage!


At Your Feet

American Harlequin is in the business of providing dancers with a solid foundation—both literally and figuratively. This year, the dance floor company will award between $500 and $5,000 to 10 aspiring dancers selected at random. You must be an American or Canadian citizen, ages 15 to 21, enrolled in a dance school to enter. Fill out an application at harlequinfloors.com. by November 1.

ABT Down South
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School boasts star teachers, an unbeatable connection to American Ballet Theatre and dozens of high-profile alumni. But the school has never been able to offer a full boarding experience complete with dorms and academics—until now. This fall, JKO took the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Dance ballet program under its wing. UNCSA faculty members have become certified in the ABT National Training Curriculum, and ABT staff will visit Winston-Salem annually to give master classes, judge exams and scout for Studio Company prospects. ABT staff will also assist the search for a permanent replacement for Ethan Stiefel, who served as the dean of UNCSA's School of Dance for the past four years before leaving to become artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. See uncsa.edu.

Healthy Competition

At competitions, it's usually every man for himself. But the Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey aims to give dancers a place to perform without sacrificing artistry in service of splashy tricks. Winners are chosen, but everyone receives written feedback, a certificate of achievement and access to workshops taught by jury members.
Dates: October 8 and 9
Location: Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ
Founded: 2005 by Leonid Kozlov
Ages: 9–25
Genres: Ballet, contemporary, jazz, folk dance
Past participants: ABT's April Giangeruso, Boston Ballet's Whitney Jensen, Billy Elliot's Kiril Kulish
To register: Go to ydfofnj.org.

Win Up To $1,000

Can you write passionately about your ballet training? You could win Costume Gallery's annual Beverly Miller Scholarship. Judges will award up to $1,000 to 19 dancers ages 12 to 21. Selections are based on dedication and financial need. The money can be used for anything that furthers your training. Apply by November 1 at costumegallery.net.

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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."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

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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