Warming up on the floor before dancing, Kalea Keller gracefully stretches her torso back and touches an upraised foot with her head.
The feat elicits a pleased gasp from her audience, much like the response all her dancing receives, said her dance teacher, Patty Neivert.
But Kalea, a 17-year-old Westminster High School senior who just won a $12,000 scholarship from the state for her interpretation of the classical ballet "Giselle," doesn't seem to know what all the fuss is about.
"I'm happy about it," said Kalea of her $3,000-per-year scholarship to attend any college in Maryland. "I surprised myself. I really didn't expect it."
Experience had taught her not to expect too much. An audition last fall at Goucher College, for an advanced student dance clinic taught by professional choreographer John Clifford, had not been so positive, said Ms. Neivert, head instructor at the Patty Neivert School of Dance in Westminster.
"I told her, 'You should make it,' " said Ms. Neivert, a graduate of Goucher and a former dancer with the now-defunct Maryland Ballet. "I felt she was competitive. But she didn't even make the corps [de ballet, the chorus]."
This time a solo choreographed to complement Kalea's slender 5-foot, 10-inch frame and a year's worth of work, at least seven hours a week, made the difference, said teacher and student.
"Obviously, between then and June 17 [the state audition], something happened," Ms. Neivert said of Kalea's work in the ballet's title role. Kalea and Michille Hyde shared that role during the school's concert last spring.
"Kalea has a good technique, but the challenge of this role [Giselle] made her work harder," Ms. Neivert said. "This is a dramatic role, not with movement for movement's sake, but with feelings and emotions and acting being just as important. This role displays all of her assets."
Those assets -- besides long legs, a graceful neck and a ballet dancer's figure -- include a spirit seen only in the best dancers, Ms. Neivert said. That spirit is probably what gave Kalea an edge, making her one of the nine student dancers statewide who were offered a scholarship, Ms. Neivert said.
"In 25 years of teaching -- from universities to the [Maryland] School of the Arts, every age level from basic to professional -- I've rarely seen the quality she has, which is riveting," she said.
Her love of dance -- classical ballet in particular -- began in a Baltimore County recreation council class at the age of 4, Kalea said. After that, she studied at the Peabody Institute until her family moved to Carroll County three years ago and she began taking lessons from Ms. Neivert.
"When I started, that [classical ballet] was the image put in my mind, and ever since it's been the same," Kalea said. "I appreciate the other styles, but I enjoy classical so much more."
The June 17 competition, part of the Maryland Distinguished Scholar Program, offered about 50 arts scholarships in dance, vocal and instrumental music, visual arts and drama, said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Including academic scholarships for National Merit scholars going to school in Maryland, the state gives 350 awards totaling $4.2 million to graduating students each year, he said. The scholarships may be used at any public or private college in Maryland.
"These are the best that come out of Maryland's high schools," Mr. Welsh said. "We face a lot of stiff competition for these students. The program exists to encourage them to stay in Maryland."
In the arts competitions, each high school nominated at least five students to either audition or present artwork before a panel of judges, Mr. Welsh said.
Magnet schools, which focus on artistic instruction, like the Maryland School of the Arts, were allowed to nominate 10 students, he said. Two schools that have smaller artistic programs nominated seven students each, Mr. Welsh said.
The 60 auditioning dance students each performed before Dorothy Fried -- artistic director for the Kinetics Dance Theater and an assistant professor of dance at Towson State University -- and Edward Stewart, he said.
Mr. Stewart, formerly a professor at Towson and a principal dancer for the Pittsburg Ballet Theater, is the artistic director of the Ballet Theater of Annapolis and is an instructor at the Maryland School of the Arts.
For Kalea, that audition fell just one week after her spring dance recital.
"I told her that was perfect, that she was in perfect shape now," Ms. Neivert said, adding that Kalea had been nervous about having only one week to prepare.
Now Kalea, who said she would like a career either performing or teaching dance, intends to use this scholarship and her newfound confidence as a springboard to higher achievements.
"I definitely want to go on to college and dance, if possible," said Kalea. "It's the only way I can find of expressing myself."