People who excel at an activity usually develop a passion for it, and from the time Houseknecht was 4 years old, her teachers were telling David and Wendy Houseknecht that their daughter was exceptionally talented.

They saw in their little girl's performances the same jubilation that Webre described. So they were understandably confused when Houseknecht decided to quit.

"It was difficult, because I saw this potential that she had," Wendy Houseknecht said. "A lot of people were saying, 'She should do this.'"

The family moved to Odenton from Baltimore County in 2005 to be closer to dance opportunities in Washington.

After the Grand Prix, Houseknecht received offers to join dance companies in Texas and North Carolina. But the Washington Ballet, her mother said, "seemed like a match made in heaven."

The studio was close enough so that Houseknecht, a homebody, could commute. She could keep dating Brooks Miller, her boyfriend of more than three years. Webre was clearly placing her on the fast track, and her career seemed assured.

In her first season, Houseknecht performed solo roles. In the spring, Webre offered her a promotion from the apprentice company to the main troupe.

"And for her first six months in the Washington Ballet, she loved it," her mother said. "When she told us she wanted to leave, I was afraid she'd make a decision at age 18 she'd regret later.

"But a year into it, I don't think she did. Dance is still part of her life, but in a different form, and she's loving it."

In retrospect, she said, her daughter had been having second thoughts about a ballet career for years. When Houseknecht was 15, she came close to quitting when a former teacher pushed her to dance on a fractured foot.

"I'd come out of class crying, and she'd tell me that I was faking it," Houseknecht said.

Though Houseknecht no longer performs "Coppelia" or "Swan Lake," she has returned to her first love, jazz dance. She's on Towson University's competitive dance team, which recently picked up its 14th consecutive national title.

And even in "First Position," which was made when Houseknecht seemed at her most determined to become a professional ballerina, the girl expresses the wish to be "normal," to go sledding with her boyfriend and eat Sunday dinner with her family.

For Houseknecht, it seems, a life of ordinary joy trumps one of extraordinary success.

Any lingering doubts she may have had were dispelled in December, when she attended a Washington Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker."

"I was sitting in the audience, watching my friends kill themselves on their pointe shoes, these little pink death traps," Houseknecht said.

"And I was grinning from ear to ear. I was so happy that I didn't have to do that anymore."

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