Aching Toes and Big Dreams -- Future Dancers Train at UNCW

Wilmington, NC – At an hour when most of their peers are still catching a summertime snooze or reporting for duty at the mall make-up counter, twenty-five teenage girls are stretching their long limbs on the stage of Kenan Auditorium.

Ballet slippers squeak as these students run through the same basic exercises practiced by ballerinas everywhere. Clustered along portable balance bars, they wear looks of practiced abstraction, the survival mechanism of people used to performing complex maneuvers in crowded spaces.

Welcome to UNCW and the Carolina Ballet's first summer program. But while this is their inaugural summer intensive, the students here are old pros. For many of them, this is their fourth or fifth summer spent away from home, honing their dance skills.

These are girls who can pull their hair into a perfect ballerina-bun in under a minute and get nostalgic for their first pair of toe-shoes. They dream of looking like princesses and keep practice schedules like football players. And some of them, possibly only a very few of them, will someday be professionals.

It takes an hour and a half to get warmed up. As the next practice class files in, Emily Igoe and Leah Palmer steal a moment's rest at the back of the auditorium before heading to an early lunch. For these two, the intensive is just an extension of their regular year, spent studying dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

"Living with a group of dancers you feed off them, Igoe says, "because these are your friends, your family."

Palmer interrupts. "You become a family," she asserts, "at first I think it's more competitive, like you're dance-against-dancer. And then you're always with them..."

Igoe jumps back in, "but you learn about the people you're living with and you realize they're just like you. They're just trying to make it. You feed off it and it makes you better person all around."

Dancer with dancer, they head off to lunch.

Pushing Through It

It's early afternoon, the advanced students are back, this time facing themselves in the massive mirrors of UNCW's dance studio. Around the walls is a tide of cast offs - discarded legwarmers and waterbottles, stray Harry Potter books. The dancers have traded their slippers for toe shoes as they follow Carolina Ballet principle dancer Melissa Podcasy across the floor, correcting their delicate arms and upright postures.

The class today is George Balanchine's choreography for the Nutcracker Suite. Watching from the side, another member of Carolina Ballet explains this is good career preparation. Annual Nutcracker performances provide a lot of employment for aspiring dancers who haven't yet joined a company.

As the class goes on, students develop limps and whisper about aching toes. And yet they keep on dancing. One is sitting things out, Brittany Blum only really needs one word of explanation: tendonitis.

"Since the program's gone on, I think everyone's had some sort of ache and pain," she says. "But that's part of being a dancer, though. You're going to get injured, you have to push through it."

Classes change: Podcasy wraps up to applause and a crowd of thanks, and the young men start to fill into the previously female-only room. They're dancers from the professional company, pressed into service for the partners class. And they're one of things that set this program apart: the entire professional core of the Carolina Ballet is working along side the intensive program. It's chance for students to take an up-close look at the possible future.

For Claire Carlisle, it's been an eye-opener. The teenager had been planning to attend college first and then audition for companies. Now she's not so sure. In any case, she says, "they painted a good picture of company life, so I'm excited."

The future, and the choice between academic and dance, weighs on Blum's mind too. The teenager is realistic about her chances. "The dance world is so difficult to get into, so difficult," she says. "And it's very difficult to make that leap and have nothing to fall back on when you know that the percentage chance that you're actually going to make it is very slim. It's kind of scary if you think about it.."

Still, she concludes, if dance is all one really loves, doing anything else is just a waste of time.

Beautiful and Known

As the older students worry about their futures, down the hall, lines of little girls have more basic concerns - their toes. Gathered in a giggling group between classes, the tweens vie for the grossest descriptions of their battered appendages: red, blistery, bloody and one missing toenail.

But they all still say their happy to be here. Francesca Benedetto gushes about being around dancers all day long. "Like, your friends sometime aren't dancers and stuff," Benedetto explains, "so it's sort of fun having everyone around you be just as serious as you are and being here for the same thing, to work hard."

Hard work is definitely in order as the girls show off their stuff, twirling across the stage in front of choreographer David Howard, one of America's top ballet teachers.

After more than four decades working with students, Howard comes across as kindly, practical, and dry-witted. He stops the girls for a moment, and instructs them to stand in front of the wall-length mirrors.

"Now," he announces once they're all in position, "how many potbellies do we have hanging out? Now get that pelvis right underneath the rib cage. Right. You're too young to go to seed." And with that begins another lesson on posture and grace.

Howard tells them dancers need to be athletic, attractive, and willing to work for little money. Only a few giggle.

Advanced student Igoe was about this age when she saw a Carolina Ballet performance she says set the course of her life. Money was the furthest thing from her mind.

"It really like hit me, this is what I want to do," she says, "I want to be that beautiful, I want to make myself known. And I enjoy doing it, I like the way I feel, I like the way I look when I dance. I keep going back and forth, but now that I'm older that I definitely, and being here with the company, I know this is what I want to do." <

By the end of the afternoon, passion alone can't keep Igoe and her peers from drooping. On the dance floor, they still move with grace, but around the edges of practice rooms, stretches are starting to look like slumps.

When the final choreography session ends, the students scatter quickly, resting up to do it all again tomorrow and, they hope, for the rest of their lives.

Read more of WHQR's coverage of the Carolina Ballet's partnership with UNCW: Ballet By the Sea