Dancer pirouettes her way to famed New York school


When Alicia Graf was 2 years old and fellow toddlers were struggling to stay upright, she was managing rhythmic twists, turns and hops through her home with an amazing amount of grace.

Seeing her ability, Martha Graf enrolled her daughter in a dance class for toddlers.

Now a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Dunloggin Middle School, Alicia has continued to take lessons and they have paid off.

She is one of only 200 young dancers nationwide chosen to participate this summer in a prestigious program offered by the School of American Ballet in New York City. The school, to which 1,800 dancers applied, prepares students for professional performing careers. Admission is by audition only.

"The School of American Ballet is the preparatory school of the New York City Ballet Co. . . . The best dancers in the world get into this school," said Donna Harrington-Payne, Alicia's teacher and director of the Kinetics School of Dance in Columbia.

"When I opened the letter, I started screaming and yelling, 'Mom, I made it!' " Alicia said.

The selection rewards a dedication to dance that the Ellicott City resident intensified in the past year, when she began attending 2 1/2 -hour classes five days a week, plus an eight-hour class on Saturday. She studies ballet, modern dance, pointe and jazz.

"They are hard [practice] nights . . . sometimes I miss my friends and stuff," admitted Alicia. "But my two best friends are dancers in the junior company [at Kinetics]."

And hard work seems to be a small price for the dancer, who says she has wanted to be a ballerina "for as long as I can remember."

She said she realized three months ago that her daily regimen was paying off after she watched a videotape of a recital last year.

"I could see how much strength I've developed in a year . . . I felt better because I realized I've been doing something good," she said.

Students attending the intensive summer session at the School of American Ballet -- located in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts -- are evaluated at the end of five weeks. Dancers who show exceptional potential, interest and progress may also be invited to a winter session, which enrolls about 200 dancers. Alicia said she is keeping her fingers crossed to be invited to those classes, too.

Alicia admits she doesn't like the idea of leaving her family -- her parents, Arnie and Martha Graf; brothers, Aaron, 16, and Darrell, 9; and her sister, Daisha, 6 -- to go to New York. Her parents aren't crazy about the idea either. Alicia has been away from home only once before, for a Girl Scout camping weekend.

"It's a very scary thing for us as parents to think of Alicia going away," said Martha Graf. "Our concern is what will happen to her character and how will she face pressures. It has been a very difficult decision for us. If she wants this, however, we will support that."

Said Arnie Graf, "If a child has a talent, he or she should be encouraged. If Alicia is willing to sacrifice, we are willing to sacrifice."

"It's a fine line between pushing and challenging," said Harrington-Payne. "The student has to make up her mind about whether she wants to do this. If she decides to do it, she has to do it the right way. To be a dancer, you can't say, 'I want to take the night off.'

"Alicia takes corrections very well -- she really absorbs everything like a sponge. Without that kind of intelligence, there is no hope of being a dancer."

Right now, Alicia can't imagine being anything but a dancer, and she believes she can perfect her talent at the School of American Ballet. As for being separated from her family, if she joins the winter program, Alicia said she will know more about her feelings when she returns home after being away for five weeks.

Meanwhile, she is still pirouetting through her house, creating havoc with any fragile objects that may be in her path.

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