Sixteen-year-old Eleanor Weir held her right leg out in front of her, arched that foot and brought her toes delicately down to the floor, then back up again. She was pretending that the floor was a cat, and she was trying to pet it with her foot.
"Yup, bup, bup, bup" guest teacher Gerard Charles said, counting out the beat at Towson's Carver Center for Arts & Technology.
Eleanor and 27 other cat petters in training were taking an intermediate-level ballet class with Charles, the ballet master for the Joffrey Ballet.
The Joffrey teaches a master class to aspiring young dancers in every city it tours in. For the first time in at least 15 years, that includes Baltimore. The Joffrey is performing at the Lyric Opera House this week.
"I know I have to dance," said Eleanor, a junior from Lutherville-Timonium. "It's what makes me the happiest."
She hung on every word uttered by Charles, who has danced in London, New York and Russia. He now works behind the scenes at the Joffrey, teaching and rehearsing the dancers.
"He focuses not only on technique but also on the artistic side," she said. "He gets everyone to see the big picture."
Between his technical instructions, Charles clowned around. One moment, he got down on his belly and wriggled around in order to place a foot in the correct position. A bit later, he grabbed his head in mock horror.
But some exercises that appeared playful had a purpose. For instance, he made students turn their backs on the studio's full-length mirrors and then perform the step combinations. He didn't want them to use their reflections as a prop.
Once the students were warmed up, Charles had them bounding around the floor with their legs extending in one direction and their arms thrust out in another, like 28 kernels of exploding popcorn.
"It really makes a difference how you energize a movement," Charles told the class. "It's not just about perfection, but about how you propel your body to be in a particular place."
Dance teachers Elizabeth Ahearn and Maria Royals said that the Joffrey, based in Chicago, was a good fit for the students because they perform a uniquely American style of ballet. The company, now in its sixth decade, broke new ground by mixing ballet and modern dance.
"This is very inspiring for our students," Royals said. "We don't get major companies visiting us here very frequently. Some of them hope to one day be part of a company like the Joffrey."
For the Joffrey, the classes represent a commitment to building tomorrow's performers and the audiences who will applaud them.
"The Joffrey thinks it really is important to share what we do," Charles said. "It's a great way to recharge my own batteries. These students were absolutely engaged."
After the class, students crowded around to thank Charles and shake his hand.
That's a dance world tradition. But several kids personalized the interaction. Eleanor had rehearsed a fancy bow that made Charles smile. Kareem Best, 17, a junior from Middle River, thanked Charles twice — once with the rest of the class, and minutes later after he'd changed out of his leotard.
"I loved the class," Kareem told a reporter.
"When he had us turn our backs to the mirror and then do our fondus and croises, I had to really think about the details of these steps in a way that I never had done before."
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