Two days before Christmas, the girls in Lansdowne High School's dance studio were buzzing — chatter that stopped abruptly when the call for rehearsal came.
The girls took their positions. De'Jah Gross stood against the mirror, watching as the first steps were taken in a dance she choreographed herself. It's a lyrical piece, starting with slow, fluid movements, becoming more energetic as dancers pair up and then ending with a melancholy walk.
The dance is called "Remember," and it's about accepting that the person you love has left your life, for the better of both of you, Gross said. In the last moments of the dance the girls sat in a circle, draping sheets over themselves to represent comfort. Then, one by one, they got up and walked away.
"That was something I was going through," Gross said. "I put all my feelings into the dance."
In December, the Lansdowne junior's work paid off when she was selected to join the All-County Honors Dance Ensemble. Two other students from the area were also picked —Gross' classmate Janai Gilmer and Amber Parks of Catonsville.
Gross' piece, "Remember," is choreographed to "Cavalier" by James Vincent McMorrow, and the most prominent line in the chorus is "I remember my first love."
When Gross first heard the song, she thought about what it meant for high school relationships.
She started dancing when she was 7, she said, and began with informal training — watching popular artists like Beyoncé on television and buying DVDs to teach herself moves.
When she was 10 she started more formal training.
"Usually most dancers start at a really young age, like 3. I was basically thrown into a class with people who knew what they were doing, and I basically had to learn it quickly. No one went step by step," she said.
She currently dances outside of school at the Maryland Academy of Dance.
"Although I wasn't technically trained, I've been through a lot, like not being accepted into schools and stuff. And I lost my confidence," Gross said. "Getting into Dance Company and getting into all-county really showed me 'Yes, you can do it. You can be the dancer you want to be. You don't have to be like everyone else.' And that's why I work hard."
In addition to successfully auditioning for honors dance, she is class president and a member of the National Honor Society.
Her first time performing was in fourth grade, when a teacher asked her to dance at a fifth-grade graduation ceremony.
"I was really nervous, but it was fun. I just was myself. It was as if I was in my room dancing in my mirror," she said.
This was her second year auditioning for All-County Honors.
"Last year I didn't get in," she said. "I was pretty confident this time."
Gilmer, who lives in Catonsville, has been dancing since she was about 6. She joined the Susan Ina Dance Studio in Linthicum to start formal training when she was 8.
"I like dancing because it's a way to express how I feel inside," she said.
The ensemble is composed of 18 students from six schools who will practice each Monday as a part of the group and perform at other Baltimore County Public Schools, in addition to the county school system's dance festival in April and the All-County Honors Dance Gala Concert in June.
Dance is her favorite class at school because it allows her to work with others and be her true self, she said. Her favorite type of dance is contemporary because it is more emotional, and she also likes hip-hop.
"With hip-hop a whole 'nother side of me comes out," she said.
She is looking forward to all-county because it will allow her to work with a new group of people.
Parks, a Catonsville resident who is a senior at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, was inspired by her grandmother, who was also a dancer. She used to tell Parks what a stress relief dancing was.
She would show her granddaughter photos of herself on stage.
"She was so passionate about it," said Parks, who also is a member of the Susan Ina Dance Studio. "I never believed her until I tried it for myself."
Now dancing is something she can't imagine not doing. Anytime she hears a song, she catches herself moving, or even mapping out choreography in her head.
This is Parks' second year in the ensemble.
"It's actually quite an honor to be in honors," she said.
Last year she enjoyed traveling to different schools to perform. She recalled performing at Baltimore County's State of the Schools luncheon, where county schools Superintendent Dallas Dance spoke.
"It felt like people do realize that dance is important to some people," she said. "It's really an amazing art."
A dance sanctuary
At Lansdowne, Gross and other dancers in the class describe the studio as a sanctuary. Sharon Murray, the school's dance teacher, started with the program in 2002, built it up and now holds her dancers in Dance Company, an audition-only group, to professional standards.
Gross lives in Randallstown but came to Lansdowne specifically for its dance program.
"This is a great platform for them to share their thoughts and ideas," Murray said.
Dance Company meets every other day, and in class Murray tries to instill the discipline required to be a great dancer — even down to the students' attire. Shorts aren't allowed, professional dance outfits only. But her kindness shows in how the students talk to her — to them, the class is a family, and they call her by a nickname.
Many students come into class interested in hip-hop and instead learn about ballet, modern and jazz — plus things such as producing a performance and the history behind dance.
Students can audition for Dance Company in any grade, but the school also offers four levels of dance under that class.
"In Dance 1 I was like, 'This is frustrating. I want to do more,'" senior Leemu Jackson said. "It's very hard to keep a bad attitude while I'm in dance."
Both Murray and Lansdowne High Principal Ken Miller said sometimes dance is the reason students come to school.
"It gives our students an opportunity to not only focus on the academics, but the performing arts, which allows some of our kids to really shine," principal said. "It's another way we can reach out and connect with kids."
The school also partners with the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore and ClancyWorks Dance Company. With the latter, students perform onstage alongside professionals.