Erica Fischbach with students from the Colorado Ballet Academy. Photo by Tamar More, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

These 5 Bad Habits Are Easy to Forget, But Fixing Them Can Take Your Dancing to the Next Level

Striving for higher extensions, more turnout and bigger jumps may be at the top of your agenda in daily class. But what about those finer points of your technique, the subtleties that make a dancer really shine? They need just as much of your attention, and letting seemingly innocuous bad habits linger will impact your overall dancing.

"There are no shortcuts in ballet," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. "You can't expect good results by ignoring details that are the building blocks of technique." We break down five bad habits that are easy to overlook—but have a major impact.


Knuckling

Peff Modelski, a faculty member at Visceral Dance Chicago whose philosophy blends anatomy and Feldenkrais technique with classical ballet, often sees dancers knuckling their toes in an effort to maximize the look of their arches. Yet crunched-up toes in tendus or relevés reduce the ankles' ability to fully support your bodyweight. Modelski cites one hypermobile dancer who suffered from constant ankle pain and muscle cramping. "It was clear she was using her toes to keep from losing her balance, and was gripping for stability," she says, even on pointe. Coaching the dancer to point her feet with long, fully stretched toes produced immediate results: She was able to relax her clenched muscles, eliminating her joint pain and bringing new ease to her dancing.

Modelski recommends practicing tendus with lengthened toes and slowly rolling up and down from relevé in parallel, working for the smoothest movement possible. Notice how your balance is affected. "Ask yourself questions to make a routine of awareness: Where is the weight on the bottoms of my feet? Is it the same in first position, fourth or fifth? When I roll up and down does my body move as one piece? Am I able to turn my head without losing my balance?" Doing so leads to higher-quality pointework, smoother weight transfers and easier balances.


Crunched-up toes in tendus or relevés reduce the ankles' ability

to fully support your bodyweight.


Upper-Body Tension

"Relax your neck!" is a common refrain in ballet class, but upper-body stiffness is more than an aesthetic concern. Master teacher Elena Kunikova says tension leads to larger technical difficulties.

"A stiff neck is a result of a dancer being unfamiliar with, and afraid of, moving her head," she says. "Therefore, the inner ear isn't being trained to adequately manage equilibrium and spatial orientation, so the ability to turn, balance and change direction is hindered." Coordinating head, eye and arm movement is key to eliminating tension and gaining easier balances.

Kunikova's own training at the Vaganova Ballet Academy taught her to follow her hand's movement with her head, and she insists her students do the same. "I give exercises to synchronize their movements," she says. "For example, I instruct them to focus their eyes and really see the fingers while they practice port de bras. This not only achieves a natural quality, it trains our heads to sustain balance."

Building upper-body coordination into every combination helps cure a related bad habit: shapeless hands. Kunikova suggests concentrating on the shape and movement of the fingers while shifting between basic arm positions (for example, from a rounded first position to an elongated arabesque). "Fingers should move like grass or seaweed," she says. "Soft, pliant, lively but not stiff."


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Incorrect Arm Placement at Barre

Since barre work is meant to set you up for center, it makes sense that your placement there should be the same. But Colorado Ballet Academy principal Erica Fischbach says all too often students hold the barre incorrectly, causing them to grip their muscles instead of gaining strength through good alignment. Everything from turnout to partnering skills is directly affected.

"The elbow should be slightly forward, so if you pick your hand off the barre, you're already in second position," says Fischbach. "If your elbow's behind you, your shoulder is forward, your upper body is twisted, and you have to compensate by shifting your hips so they're not over your feet. And if your rear is out behind you, you can't turn out. It's a domino effect."

In class, Fischbach illustrates how much upper-body placement matters by having two students "partner" each other, with one person offering his or her hand as if it were the barre. "They try to do a rond de jambe en l'air, but start to pull their elbow behind them, and everyone falls down. It shows them how all the muscles work together as a whole, and for smooth control you need your placement."


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Fuzzy Spotting

The ideal mechanics of spotting, says JKO School's Cynthia Harvey, are misunderstood and undervalued. It's more than just whipping your head—the eyes must focus, too.

Intense concentration at barre often causes dancers to let their eyes "glaze over," a habit that becomes especially detrimental during pirouettes. The quality—and quantity—of turns depends on clearly seeing what you're spotting. "Taking your head around without returning your eyes to the same spot can throw you off, and will certainly affect continuous turns," says Harvey. "Returning your eyes to a focal point really helps." A great way to practice is by spotting a sign or lettering on the wall. Reading the words with each revolution will train your eyes to really focus.

Remember how powerful eyes are as communication tools, too—your face shouldn't get cloudy once your fouettés are finished. "Relying simply on the technical aspects won't make a person a good dancer if they can't convey anything, and 'speaking' with the eyes is part of that," Harvey notes.


"Focus and direction of the eyes are equally important to technique and can transform a good dancer into a superb one." —Cynthia Harvey


Ignoring the Music

Dancers with a keen sense of rhythm and phrasing immediately stand apart from those who merely dance on the correct counts, but musicality is a skill that can also be taught—and learned. And since technique and artistry go hand in hand, they must be developed together, says Houston Ballet Academy's Claudio Muñoz. The key is learning to not just hear the music but understand it.

In Muñoz's classes, students are challenged to think about how the music and combinations fit together, and why both beat and melody matter. "I gather the students around the piano and ask one to suggest what music would be proper for the exercise, and then to sing the melody they think is appropriate," he says. "The pianist plays several rhythms until the student makes the best selection."

Musicality starts with accuracy: listening for the beats within each phrase and making sure not to rush ahead or lag behind. Starting at barre, think about where you should be on each beat of a 3/4 waltz, for example, by counting the 1-2-3 within each phrase. When the teacher shows a combination, consider how many counts each step has: Is the tendu in half a count, one or two? Should you begin to move on 8 or "and"? How long can you hold fifth position before moving from it? Fine-tuning your timing can elevate your dancing to the next level. "It's the details like musicality that make a dancer unforgettable in the eyes of the audience," says Muñoz. "Without them, it becomes just movement, not art."


Claudio Muñoz leading men's class at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

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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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