A dozen young girls squealed with delight as a white stretch limo pulled up to the State of the Arts dance studio in Westminster. They quickly climbed inside, eager to ride to the National Theatre in Washington.
The dancers were off to watch their friend and fellow dancer Samantha Pollino, whom they call "Peanut," make her big-time debut in Hot Feet, a Broadway-bound musical.
Samantha, 11, took the stage Tuesday night; she's the child star of the new musical, which will have a three-week run in Washington.
The show, which is a spin on the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Red Shoes, features hip-hop and jazz numbers set to the songs of the R&B; group Earth, Wind & Fire.
It is scheduled to open in New York City this month.
Inside the limo, neon lights flashed across black leather upholstery as Samantha's friends and fellow dance students sipped sparkling cider, munched brownies and marked one of their own's 13th birthday.
"This is the best bus ever!" said Sara Wack, 12.
En route to the show, the kids bounced in their seats to blaring hip-hop music, while applying lip gloss, snapping photos and sending text messages on their cell phones.
After the girls belted out Kelly Clarkson's song "Because of You," Valerie Mehl, mother of birthday celebrant Jaclynn Mehl, said she would ask the dance studio owner "to do a musical because of all you singers."
Samantha may not have time for that production.
A professional jazz dancer who has been training since she was 3, Samantha joined the Westminster dance studio, home to the Westminster Ballet Theatre, last fall to refine her ballet techniques.
"I love it there," said Samantha of the dance school. "The ballet is so intense and so fundamental to every other style of dance. The teachers really help you."
Samantha plays the wide-eyed, precocious Emma Emerson in Hot Feet. When the curtain rises, she is among the first characters on stage. Dressed in a floppy denim hat with a matching skirt and knapsack, she dances around the set until she bumps into a devilish character named Louie, alias Lucifer, who is played by Allen Hidalgo.
"What happened?" she says. "Where am I? I have to get back to my mom."
Samantha, a Hampstead resident, looked at home playing a spunky country girl lost in the big city. She has done roles in local theater, such as Beauty and the Beast and It's A Wonderful Life, but the Hot Feet production is her first role in the big leagues.
"She's wonderful for this role," Maurice Hines, the choreographer, creator and director of Hot Feet, said during intermission. "She's a natural. She's just spectacular."
Until two weeks ago, Samantha was the understudy for Emma, the only child role in Hot Feet. But on the first night of rehearsals in Washington, Hines said he couldn't pass up Samantha.
Hines rewrote the ending for Tuesday night, giving Samantha only a few hours to learn her new lines and dance steps.
"I've learned a lot about show business," Samantha said. "You have to get used to the change. Stuff like this happens every day."
To better navigate the world of show business, Samantha signed with an agent when she turned 9. That led to dancing on the Philadelphia 76ers' hip-hop junior dance team and in promotional shows for Nike and Mattel, including one to launch a new Barbie doll. She has also modeled for Capezio dancewear and the UFO clothing company.
A tutor on the set helps Samantha, a straight-A student, keep up with her schoolwork. North Carroll Middle School teachers loaded up her mother Lisa Pollino with a suitcase full of books and work so Samantha wouldn't fall behind.
Rachyl Kohler, a fellow dancer and sixth-grade classmate, said many North Carroll pupils had written cards to support Samantha.
In addition to dance, Samantha has taken years of voice and piano lessons to prepare for the professional production. But what really surprised her friends in the audience was how well she could act.
She came alive during the musical's long grand finale, just before the curtain closed.
"You can see the spirit in her," said Janette Sullivan, director of the Westminster Ballet Theatre. "Not just the dancing, but the acting, the timing, the diction and tone of her voice. She was at ease on that stage. That's where she is meant to be."
As for the future, Samantha said she wants to keep auditioning for more roles on Broadway. She said she admires Tony award-winning Bernadette Peters for her strong voice and the artistry of Vivian Nixon, the daughter of dancer Debbie Allen, who plays Kalimba, the lead in Hot Feet.
"I want to be like her when I get older," Samantha said of Nixon.
Unlike Kalimba, who meets with a tragic fate, Emma, Samantha's character, can go on dancing. In Hot Feet's finale, the young Emma refuses to sell her soul to the devil for a pair of glittering, ruby red slippers. By resisting the shoes, Emma out-dances the entire cast, while the audience cheers and claps for her. It is the new ending.