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Dancers Facing Barre Exam

For one group of Orange County students, the proof is in the pointe.

An audience of 3,000 will be judging the talents of the 12 members of Ballet Unlimited in Houston tonight when the dancers perform three pieces to the music of Fats Waller at the Regional Dance America National Festival, the nation’s largest gathering of regional ballet troupes.

The dance numbers are comedic pieces, one of which requires them to stand on their toes in large tennis shoes.

For Kristen Olsen Potts, founder and artistic director of the nonprofit ballet school, the occasion marks the 10th year that her company has passed muster with the Dance America judges who decide whether a company is fit to perform.

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This year also marks the first time that the nation’s five regions have all come together for the five-day festival.

For Potts’ students, that means that talent scouts from the nation’s premier companies will be watching as they perform in master dance classes and then put their best pointes forward. Scholarships and job offers are at stake.

“For the ones who want to dance professionally, it’s an unbelievable opportunity,” said Potts, who also is the founder and director of the West Coast Conservatory of Ballet.

The festival is not a competition, and there are no trophies or prizes. “This is purely for love of the art form,” Potts said. “It’s a place to expose the dancers.”

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Potts and her assistant director and choreographer, Janet Ambruso, have carefully nurtured the 11 teenage girls and one boy who are at the festival. Avoiding the pitfalls of too-strenuous training and induced anorexia is now the mode within the dance world.

But the dancers nonetheless train 15 to 20 hours a week, giving up their Saturdays and three after-school weekdays to learn classical and modern dance at the school in an industrial strip on Collins Avenue. The company is professionally structured, with students grouped in the hierarchy of principal dancers, soloists and members of the corps de ballet.

That may be hard on their fragile teenage emotions, but that is the way ballet works, Ambruso said. “They’re in puberty, and it’s confusing. Kristen is good about pushing them to consistency. She doesn’t want them to not have emotions but to temper them. Each of them is so wonderful and so sweet.”

The dancers said that throbbing feet and demanding schedules are worth the pleasure of the art.

“Dance is a place for me to get away from parents, my little sister and my school friends,” said Heather Rasmussen, 15, of Placentia.

Principal dancer Jamie Dee, 14, who has one of the main roles in Ambruso’s dance--called “Misbehavin’ "--has her eye on New York’s American Ballet Theater.

“I danced with ABT and their ‘Nutcracker’ at the Orange County Performing Arts Center,” she said. “I’ve been dancing for five years. It’s something I feel I’m good at. When I dance, I forget everything else.”


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