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A drive to dance as a professional


When 17-year-old dancer Camille Workman's ballet slipper broke during her routine with three other dancers, it didn't stop her.

She tossed the slipper across the room and kept going. It's that drive and determination that allowed her to endure the tough criticism doled out by renowned dancer Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and other teachers in the program Saturday in the Eisenhower Theater Rehearsal Room at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

An early start

Workman, who will be a Howard High School senior in the fall, has been dancing since she was age 4.

Along with ballet, she has studied modern, jazz and lyrical dancing. She is determined to become a professional, she said. This is the second year she is participating in the Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency program at the Kennedy Center.

The experience is giving her a glimpse of what she might encounter in the professional world of dance.

Hear the beat, not the orchestration, Mitchell demanded when the four girls, ages 11 to 18, finished their piece. "Keep your weight on your front foot, just pull your arms in, don't swing them," he said. "Keep the rhythm."

The dancers extended their arms over and over again until Mitchell was satisfied. They counted every beat to the entire piece to the music, without moving.

Final pose

The routine's final pose was scrutinized. The girls were told to tilt their heads up, "letting the light stream down your cheek bones," Mitchell said. They practiced until no chin was left turned down.

"That's how [artistic directors] are," Workman said of Mitchell's technique. "They may not be as firm as he is, but the attitude is, 'Just do it, and get it done.' If you can't do it, they'll always find someone else that can."

The Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency is a prestigious program, now in its 12th year at the Kennedy Center, with a tough audition process.

Workman was one of 54 dancers, ranging in age from 9 to 18, chosen out of the 350 from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia who auditioned for the 20-week preprofessional program of instruction with principal dancers with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell, a 1993 Kennedy Center nominee.

She was the only Howard County resident chosen this year.

"If his [Mitchell's] heart wasn't in this program it wouldn't exist," said Lorraine Graves, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal dancer and now a guest teacher with the company. "It's a step to get to another level."

After the program

Students who have gone through the program have risen through the ranks to become principal dancers in the company. Others have become professionals with other companies, including the American Ballet Theatre.

But it is more than dancing alone.

"Being in this program really gives them a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence," said Mitchell, who co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in a church basement in 1969 after being a principal dancer with New York City Ballet.

After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell was determined to do something to provide children in Harlem with the kinds of opportunities that had been given to him.

Now 31 years old, the company has grown into a multicultural institution of world renown, made up of students and dancers from the United States and abroad, according to the dance company's Web site.

"We don't lower the bar," Mitchell said of the preprofessional program. "Either they hit that high C or they don't. ... When they walk into an audition, they will walk across the room like they are somebody."

"Even if they don't all become dancers, it teaches them discipline," Graves said. "They will become better lawyers, doctors and teachers because they have learned another level of discipline that a lot of other kids don't acquire."

Workman began dancing with Cindee Velle at Stonehouse in Long Reach Village Center. She and her sister, Kalin, 18, danced and won numerous titles at national competitions, including Starquest, Starpower, New York City Dance Alliance and West Coast Dance Explosion.

Dance Theatre of Harlem has introduced Workman to a different style, she said.

"Dancing is something you can always improve on," Workman said of what keeps her going. "It's something you can focus on."

Workman also sings with the Howard High School madrigals, is a member of the National Honor Society and had a part in the high school's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

She will spend the summer in New York City participating in the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater school's professional division dance program.

"This is my second year working with Camille," said Graves. "She has really improved. She is a strong dancer with a great work attitude. ... When you have will, determination and a dream, you go after it."

The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at 11 a.m. tomorrow in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Information: 202-416-8839.

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