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Let's Talk About Self Talk: Tips for Changing a Negative Inner Dialogue

As an aspiring or professional dancer, whose voice do you hear the most in your head? While you may think it's the voice of your teacher, ballet master or director, or perhaps even your friends and colleagues, it's most likely your own. Even when we're not speaking out loud, we're in constant dialogue with ourselves. But whether you're thinking about choreography or your to-do list, how does that voice sound?

In a field that is already hypercritical, let's pause and evaluate exactly what we're saying to ourselves. Is our inner voice helping, or could it be hurting?


Black and White Thoughts

The first step is to notice what that voice is actually saying—are you giving yourself constructive advice, or are you constantly tearing yourself down? Therapist Jenna Kiska, LCSW, of the Dialectical and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center in Westport, Connecticut, specializes in working with adolescents and young adults. She notes that self-defeating thoughts really stick out when we classify them as "black and white" thoughts. "A black and white thought doesn't leave room for interpretation," says Kiska. "You're stuck thinking it can only be one way or the other."

These thoughts can include the words never, always, everyone and no one. If I say to myself, "Everyone is a better turner than me," is that 100 percent true? Probably not. When I think, "I always mess this part of the choreography up," is that helping me to fix it for the next rehearsal? Not really. "Catching those black and white thoughts reminds us that we're not leaving any space for possibility, or for change," says Kiska. Much of life in general is not black and white; the same is true for ballet.

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Make a List

As a young dancer, I easily got bogged down in everything that was wrong with my dancing: I wasn't turned out enough, my pirouettes weren't strong enough, my technique wasn't clean enough. When I focused on these thoughts instead of the positive aspects of my dancing, I quickly became defeated and discouraged. While it's great to want to improve and advance, beating yourself up about everything you're doing wrong isn't the most effective strategy, and it's probably not going to make you a better dancer.

So let's reframe that. Kiska's advice is to make a list, and split it into two categories: the things you like about your dancing, and the things you want to improve upon. "And you can't like nothing!" she says. The "like" list can include aspects of your technique that you've worked hard on, or even the joy you feel while dancing. Note, too, that the second category isn't about what you're "bad at." By saying we want to improve, we're subtly reminding ourselves that we will advance. Before class each day, remind yourself of how far you've come, and let yourself enjoy the things that make you unique.

"The Best Friend Rule"

Another excellent way to work on your inner dialogue is to think about how you would speak to a friend. "We refer to this as 'the best friend rule,'" says Kiska. "When someone asks you to watch them and give them feedback, we tend to go into constructive-criticism mode." Even if they're not doing a step correctly, you're going to be gentle in the way you approach helping them. So why should we be so hard on ourselves? Talk to yourself the way you would a friend: gently, kindly and with lots of encouragement. Give yourself every mental "snap," "yess!" and "you got this!" you need. Don't be afraid to celebrate little victories!

Now, maybe you read all of this thinking, "That doesn't apply to me," or "I don't do that." Then that's amazing! But for me, it's taken a while to change my mental approach. I even sought out a therapist's help to change my mindset, because it was so difficult for me to accept any compliments or encouragement from others. But by learning to speak to myself more kindly, I'm now more willing to believe people when they point out the positives aspects of my dancing. I hope that the more we talk about self-talk, the more dancers will be empowered to be kinder with themselves, and that we begin to address the mental needs that aren't talked about often enough.

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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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