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Life on pointe

Published on 21st April 2015

Young ballerinas work hard and dream big
by Devin Blomquist

Young ballerinas are dispersed throughout the building, stretching their long, lean limbs, lacing up their satin pointe shoes and sitting patiently as mothers, friends or teachers apply finishing touches on hair and makeup at the Youth America Grand Prix Regional Semi-Finals in Denver in late February. Some stand against railings and cabinets at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts to balance themselves while going through the motions of their upcoming performances. First position, second position, third position, fourth. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It takes far more than a pair of pointe shoes and a pretty face to make it this far in the competition. These ballerinas have had to find space in their busy lives to make time for hundreds of hours of intense practice and rehearsal time. Thirteen-year-old Isabella Bertellotti says she has been practicing ballet for about 10 years. She currently practices six days a week for a total of 15 to 20 hours in the studio. To prepare for this competition, Isabella began intensive training about two months ago, which incorporated two additional private sessions with her teacher each week.

“It’s a lot and very time consuming, but it’s worth it when you get to be on stage,” Isabella says as her bright pink lips part into a big, genuine smile.

Sophia Frilot, another young ballerina at the Youth America Grand Prix event, says she practices nearly 20 hours each week as well. One month ago, she broke her toe, which has required her to practice even more in preparation for this event. Sophia says she tapes it before slipping into her pointe shoes. As far as pain? She says pointe, in general, is a pain ballerinas simply get used to, but there isn’t much additional pain performing on a broken toe.

These ballerinas receive about 15 minutes of open stage time before each round of performances. Ballerinas flood the stage during this time, each in their own brightly colored costume, made complete with a bedazzled tiara, full tutu or light, sleek skirt. This is the last chance to practice on the stage before performing for the judges and an audience filled with friends and family members.

Both ballerinas have to find time to commute about an hour and a half to two hours each day — Isabella to her ballet school and Sophia to her performing arts school — to practice and take classes during or after school. Homework is either done in between or after school and ballet class.

For some ballerinas, the training gets even more intensive as they grow older. Athena Nikolakopulos, a 17-year-old ballerina from Los Angeles and competitor at the Youth America Grand Prix, says she practices every day, totaling 36 to 40 hours each week. Her training is a full-time job, on top of the demands of schoolwork and time with family or friends.

According to these ballerinas, all of this practice has a purpose, an end goal that reaches far beyond winning competitions. These ballerinas practice with the hopes of an opportunity to be picked up by a major ballet company or dance school. For Isabella, the ultimate goal is to be a principal dancer in a major company like the Bolshoi Ballet Grigorovich Company in Russia or the American Ballet Theatre.

As the thick smell of hairspray wafts through the halls, Nikolakopulos says one of the toughest aspects of becoming a ballerina is being able to understand and deal with the industry emphasis on aesthetics.

“It’s discouraging that if you’re not born with something, there’s nothing you can do about it,” she says, before rushing off to help her younger sister, who is also competing, prepare for her time on stage.

The idea of the perfect ballerina aesthetic is not only of concern to some ballerinas themselves, but to mothers of such athletes as well. Wendy Bertellotti, Isabella’s mother, also references the effects of what it means and what it takes to be a ballerina. There is a very narrow definition for success in ballet, she says, and scary stereotypes and self-destructive behaviors abound.

“We talk about it and communicate with [Isabella],” Bertellotti says, “emphasizing a healthy relationship with food and taking care of her body.”

Bertellotti says she and her daughter have met a lot of dancers who are healthy and live well.

“She has a lot of good role models in her life of how to be a healthy ballerina — that’s important,” Bertellotti says.

For some, this competition acts as the gateway to the final round of the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, where ballerinas continue the competition for scholarships to leading ballet schools and dance companies. Isabella and Sophia both placed in the top 12 men and women for the contemporary dance category of the junior age division, and Nikolakopulos tied for third place in the women’s classical dance category of the senior age division at the Youth America Grand Prix Semi-Finals in Denver. If their scores are high enough, they will be invited to attend the week-long New York City Finals in April.

Published in the March 12, 2015 edition of the Boulder Weekly