Like millions of other people, physician assistant Aki Ohinata gets bored with exercise. But instead of longing for a comfy couch and a bag of chips, she prefers a bigger challenge and a shot of adrenaline. That’s how she ended up getting her workout while dangling 20 feet in the air. For an hour and a half a night. Four nights a week.
Ohinata, who works in Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology by day, is an aerial dancer by night. Think strength and endurance, Cirque du Soleil and mid-air acrobatics.
“It started as a New Year’s resolution to try something new,” says Ohinata, who’s held the same job at MD Anderson since becoming a physician assistant over a decade ago. “I love my patients, and I love my job, but I need those hours after work to re-energize myself. Then I use that energy to treat patients the next day.”
The thrill of a challenge: Becoming an aerial dancer
Pushing herself to the limit is a lifetime habit.
As a child in Dallas, Ohinata set her sights on becoming an Olympic gymnast. For years, she dashed straight from school to the gym, and gymnastic competitions filled her weekends. That came to a stop when her family moved to Tokyo when she was a teenager. But her attraction to active pursuits never diminished.
Eventually Ohinata moved back to the United States to attend Texas A&M University. While earning a bachelor’s in nutrition, she worked as a paramedic to pay the bills. Her hands-on, life-and-death experiences in ambulances galvanized her to go after a career in medicine, and she went on to earn a master’s in the physician assistant program at UT Medical Branch in Galveston.
In 2003, Ohinata landed a demanding job at MD Anderson, but that never slowed her down on weekends. She became an avid skydiver. She earned her certification as a yoga instructor. And she enjoys camping, rock-climbing and mountain-biking.
But when Cirque du Soleil caught her eye four years ago, one pursuit shot to the top of her to-do list. She tracked down a studio offering classes in aerial dancing.
Finding the beauty in being an aerial dancer
“The athleticism of it hooked me first, but I’ve come to enjoy the artistic part, too,” Ohinata says.
She specializes in performances with the lyra, a hoop suspended from the ceiling.
Executing graceful routines to music – sometimes a pop tune, sometimes a tango – her gymnastics training is apparent. So is her enthusiasm.
Two nights a week she takes classes. Two other nights she teaches. She finds that teaching, whether in the gym or the hospital, motivates her to push herself and learn new things so she can teach with competence and confidence.
“Mostly I just like teaching people things I enjoy doing, whatever that may be,” she says.
So far, the most fun has come at the invitation of the Houston Grand Opera. She and 16 other aerial dancers performed last spring in Richard Wagner’s opera "The Valkyrie.” She’s also performed at fundraising galas, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. Nerves aren’t much of a problem, she says, because she’s having way too much fun. Fun is critical for someone who spends most of her time in a job that relies on empathy and focus.
Whatever happens at the clinic before Ohinata arrives at the dance studio is gone as soon as her feet leave the ground.
“The music comes on,” she says, “and everything else fades away.”
This article originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.