Jessica Flynn, above, has rereleased her 2016 novel Dancing in Time with revisions inspired by her education in cognitive behavior therapy and the growing momentum to change ballet's culture.

Melina Nastazia, Courtesy Jessica Flynn

Former “Baby Ballerina” Jessica Flynn on Her YA Novel and the Secrets to Surviving in Ballet

Most young dancers dream about how Jessica Flynn's ballet career began. After performing several lead roles at School of American Ballet's Workshop and winning the prestigious Mae L. Wien Award in 2002, she got an apprenticeship with New York City Ballet at age 16 and her corps contract less than a year later. Some soloist roles followed, and she appeared to have a bright future at the company. But just before her three-year mark, she left NYCB and never performed professionally again.

Flynn is now a ballet teacher, a holistic health coach for performing artists, a candidate for a master's in social work, a wife and a new mom. She's also an author. In 2016, she published Dancing in Time, the fictional tale of Charlie, a 37-year-old marketing executive who can't shake the failure of her ballet career. She wakes up one morning in her 17-year-old body, and has the chance to redo her career with the benefit of hindsight. The book deals with themes of extreme competition, body image and weight, disempowering relationships, and how all of these factors can suck the joy out of dancing—yet it's surprisingly humorous and entertaining.


Flynn is rereleasing Dancing in Time now, with revisions inspired by her education in cognitive behavioral therapy and the momentum of the moment for changing ballet's culture.

We caught up with Flynn to learn more about her story and why she hopes young dancers will read the book and internalize its message.

Your ballet career started off on a fast track, then ended abruptly. What was behind your decision to leave NYCB?

Dance is about joy, and I had lost the joy in the company. Toward the end of my time there, I performed in the corps of Balanchine's Square Dance, and I really danced my heart out. The love for dance came back in full force and I thought in that moment that I'd stay with NYCB after all. When I came off the stage a member of the artistic staff was in the wings and gestured for me to come talk to them. I thought they might have noticed my performance, but instead they looked me dead in the eye and said only "Your ribbons are filthy."

When I think of that final joyous performance, it was just about this person crushing it. That's when I knew I couldn't do it anymore. I didn't have the tools or support to stand firm in what I felt, and I allowed them to steal all that joy from me.

Peter [Martins, NYCB's former ballet master in chief] used to say to me "No word is good word." But I needed more feedback about how it's going, telling me what to improve, nurturing me as a dancer and not just a worker. The culture of 'Deal with it on your own' didn't work for me. I don't blame anybody, but I would have done better in a culture with more empathy and support.

While conditions could have been different, I discovered the realities of professional ballet were not right for me. I loved to dance and perform, but the daily details of the craft, worrying about my weight every day, wasn't sustainable for me. It's why I don't harbor resentment. My transition would have been more graceful, but it would have happened regardless.

What inspired you to write Dancing in Time?

I started the book nine years after I left the company. Writing it was cathartic. I also had been teaching ballet for some years and realized I had gained important perspective and wanted to find a way to share it with young dancers.

I was on vacation with a friend in Mexico swimming in the ocean and it just hit me that I could write a novel about this. I came out of the water and announced that I was going to write a book, and I did!

A book cover with the title Dancing in Time, a Novel at the top shows a black-and-white photo of a young teenage dancer in a dark leotard crouched in the ground, burrowing her head into her right knee.

The cover for Jessica Flynn's YA novel, Dancing in Time

Courtesy Jessica Flynn

What was it like writing the book, your first major writing project?

I had done so much self-work since leaving the company, my perspective really changed. I had this fantasy: What if I could go back and dance with what I know and feel now, with all these tools and empowerment? I would feel grateful and joyful every day, and wouldn't let a bad breakup or a bad weight talk derail me. To write passages where Charlie is back in that world but with more confidence and perspective, feeling the love of dance in the moment and understanding all the challenges for what they are, and not making life or death out of everything, was freeing.

But I had to apply all the lessons I was writing about to the writing process: to be kind with myself, knowing it didn't have to be perfect this time or ever, and not compare myself to other writers.

It was awesome how the characters emerged; they all really wrote themselves. Most were not based on anyone specific. I grew to care about them and inhabit their world. By the time I got to the end, the dramatic final sequence just wrote itself. It was amazing, like some kind of force possessed me, which is how I used to feel when I was dancing.

I also had a great advisor, Christian De Matteo at the LEAP Program. I couldn't have done it without him.

How much of the book is based on your own experience?

Well, obviously I never traveled back in time! But there are parallels. I struggled with my weight. I was told I "looked like a totally different person than when I got into the company," and I was 7 pounds heavier. I was ashamed to be seen in class after that, and it was a constant feeling of being judged. And similar to Charlie, I went on a strict diet, although I never did a juice cleanse for a full month, but some people did do that. The breakup Charlie goes through with a company member was also something I experienced—processing it in a way that broke my self-confidence.

You wrote this book with young dancers in mind. What do you hope they will take away from it?

I want to help dancers avoid what happened to me, or the patterns of thinking that derailed me. I'm doing that in my teaching at Downtown Dance Factory, and health coaching dancers one-on-one through Better with Jess.

I had a lot of self-defeating thoughts and I didn't have the confidence or self-efficacy to navigate my way through those questions. There's evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy can make a big difference in how we react to and think about what happens to us. It's made a big difference for me. I want to give dancers more power over their experience so they can enjoy dancing, whether it's for a career or not.

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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."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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