Caitlin Kinney has a hidden advantage - and it just might come in handy as the blond ballerina from Annapolis competes this week on the highly rated Fox reality show, So You Think You Can Dance?
The 21-year-old Kinney's secret weapon isn't her stunning good looks, her story of perseverance over adversity (after a potentially career-ending injury, her entire right hip was rebuilt 18 months ago), or even the rock-solid technical skills she polished as a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
No, Kinney's secret weapon is her little sister.
Megan Kinney, 19, is also a talented dancer, though unlike the classically trained Caitlin, her specialty is musical theater. The siblings made it to the callback round in Las Vegas independently - Caitlin auditioned in Memphis, Tenn., and Megan in Miami.
During the winnowing process in Las Vegas, the Kinneys were roommates. They shared a giant pizza and ice cream sundae after the first grueling day of competition. When one danced, the other watched from the sidelines. If one of the judges criticized Caitlin's performance, Megan, on the sidelines, bit her lip and balled her hands into fists. When another praised Megan's routine, it was Caitlin's face that glowed.
At one point, Caitlin wrapped an arm around Megan and told the cameras: "We are closer now. If anything good comes out of this, it will be her realizing how amazing she is."
In the fourth episode, the sister act was split up. Though Caitlin advanced to the next round, Megan was sent home.
"To be honest, I was really nervous about competing against my sister," Megan says.
"When you are siblings, it's natural for people to compare you, even though our dancing is very different. But it ended up being an amazing experience. It's weird, but I was more upset when I thought Caitlin was going to be cut than when I actually was. I mean, I was bummed about myself. But I was so relieved for her. And she's improved so much in the past three weeks."
Caitlin will need all the tools at her disposal to survive this week's dance-off. Her mother, Elizabeth Kinney, who had advance word about the routine her daughter was to perform Wednesday, admitted to being "a little nervous" but added, "If she gets kicked off tonight, I'm still proud of who she is." (The final 14 contestants were to perform Wednesday night, and results of the voting will be announced tonight.)
So all the Kinneys - along with Caitlin's other fans - were busy Wednesday putting together the details of various television watch parties spread through Annapolis. (Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley, was spotted last week at one such get-together.)
Doug Kinney, who owns industrial manufacturing companies, is limbering up his dialing finger on his daughter's behalf. Elizabeth Kinney, the president of the board of the Light House facility in Annapolis, says jokingly that Caitlin is the only candidate in the show's history who can boast that she has the residents of a homeless shelter rooting for her. (Both Megan and Caitlin spent many hours at the Light House over the years, teaching dance moves to residents' children.)
The Kinneys' eldest daughter, Erin, 25, is studying neuropathic medicine out of town. Though Erin Kinney doesn't dance, she's been talking up Caitlin's performances with her friends and is planning to get a T-shirt reading, "I'm the other sister."
And motorists along U.S. 50 can't help but spot a message on the JumboTron outside the Westfield shopping mall in Annapolis urging passers-by to vote for Caitlin.
After early training in gymnastics, Caitlin began studying dance in the sixth grade, and most recently spent a three-year stint with the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
"Caitlin is the reason I'm involved in dance," Megan says. "She's the one who taught me how to do a cartwheel. When she did her gymnastic routines, I'd stand in the aisles and try to do the same stunts. I remember that the first time Caitlin went to her first national dance competition, there was an extra piece of fabric left over from her costume. I wrapped myself up in it and tried to do my own makeup. Then I came out and gave her a big hug."
In high school, the sisters performed a duet together in dance competitions to Celine Dion's If I Could. Megan played the role of the younger sister and would leap away, testing her wings. When she stumbled, Caitlin, in the role of the older sister, would dance over and comfort her.
Their roles were temporarily reversed two years ago after Caitlin endured a potentially catastrophic hip replacement surgery. It was Megan who, as a dancer herself, could empathize most with Caitlin's ordeal, Megan who cheered on her big sister.
"Caitlin was in extraordinary pain," Elizabeth Kinney says.
"She had tears in the ligament, bone spurs, it was a disaster. If she would have had traditional surgery, it would have ended her career. But, we found one of two doctors in the world who was performing a different kind of procedure.
"The day after the procedure, your hip ends up looking like a giant watermelon, and then they make the patients get up and ride a stationary bike. Two NFL players passed out, but Caitlin, the little dancer, made it through. She was crying and vomiting because it hurt so much, but she did it."
So, Elizabeth Kinney naturally was nervous when she found that her two youngest girls would compete against one another on a show broadcast to millions.
"You never know how the show will be edited," she says, "and the producers could have created something between the girls that wasn't there."
Elizabeth Kinney took to bombarding her daughters with text messages. One jokingly urged Megan and Caitlin to be role models for the White House's two youngest residents: "Sasha and Malia could be watching."
Another read, "You're sisters first. Don't forget that."
But the girls' mutual support never wavered - and that makes their mother very happy.
"I admire their hard work and discipline a lot," Elizabeth Kinney says, "But more than that, I'm proud of the women they've become."
So You Think You Can Dance's results show airs at 9 tonight on WBFF-Channel 45.