Four piano chords play before dance teacher Cheryl Carty launches herself among a maze of bodies and flying limbs, grabbing a foot to shape it perfectly as the owner makes a face of surprise and pain.
Josh Hunt’s grimace quickly turns to a smile as Carty sets down the 15-year-old’s foot and moves to the next dancer, 16-year-old Levi Laterreur, who gets the same correction.
“Learning ballet helps me grow as a person because it helps me realize that there’s more to life than just the things you know about or like. I never really liked ballet or thought I would but when I took it I fell in love,” Levi wrote in an essay about his relationship with ballet.
In all, 27 teenage boys studied ballet in co-ed classes during the past school year at Manatee School For the Arts in Palmetto -- a number that would make any dance school proud.
“Dance is very athletic,” says principal Bill Jones. “It’s not all prancing on tiptoes and tutus; it’s hard work.”
Matthew Griffin, 14, checks the line of his arabesque with a sideways glance in the mirror.
“You can make yourself better through your work,” says Matthew, who had to convince his parents to let him study dance. “I actually had to earn their support, really. My parents saw one of my showcases here, and then my dad said, ‘OK, maybe you can do this.’
“From there on I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta be better. I’ve got to keep them thinking I can do this so they’ll be willing to drive me to class five nights a week.’ They’ve done so much for me with crazy time commitments and driving me to auditions.”
Despite an initial resistance to the prospect of ballet class from some of the students, Carty has managed to help build up the ranks of the school’s male dancers. Dance survey class is part of the curriculum for all sixth-graders that introduces the students to the different genres of dance, including ballet. Carty teaches levels 1-4 in ballet and tap and jazz, which are electives to middle and high-schoolers.
“She understands male dancers so well, she knows what motivates them and knows how to recruit them,” says Jones.
Carty, a founding MSA board member and former dance studio owner, is a veteran performer with a body of work including 10 years performing kicks as a Radio City Music Hall Rockette and choreographing works off-Broadway.
“You have to find a way to make sense of the spirit and heart,” she says. “It’s like focusing a lens to find balance in the spirit of dance while enjoying the work.”
Creating strong roles for male dancers in her production of Alice’s Wonderland Ballet has proved a successful lure.
“She goes out of her way to give guys good roles; very exciting and action-packed. She recruits in a positive way, then she delivers -- for real,” Jones says.
Though the dancers are going different ways for the summer -- and are pursuing widely divergent future paths -- most have realized the necessity of ballet training for any form of dance they may pursue.
Devan Salati, 14, will hang up his ballet shoes for the summer and lace up cleats for football camp at Braden River. But he treasures his performance in Carty’s production.
“It’s like nothing else,” he said. “Last year when I started ballet, my friends were making fun of me, so I was a little embarrassed. This year I didn’t care. It’s great for me and it’s helping me, so who cares what they think.”
He plans to return to ballet class at the start of the school year.
Zack Donaldson, 17, has graceful arms and a thoughtful air while practicing in ballet class. He spends his spare time with the Manatee County Explorers, a training program at the sheriff’s office.
“Dance is an escape from anything,” he says. “You can make it look elegant and beautiful.” Zack plans to join the Marines for a few years before starting a career in law enforcement -- and he’ll keep his toes in dance. “It’s something I’ll really miss, but I plan on taking a class here and there.”
Several dancers have earned coveted scholarships to summer programs at Houston Ballet, Patel Conservatory, American Ballet Theater and the Sarasota Ballet; places reserved for serious career-minded dancers like Calvin Farias.
Farias, 17, has the polished technique of a dancer whose hard work seems effortless as he moves while rehearsing a contemporary piece.
“I want to make it into a company. Any company,” says Farias. “Dancing makes me feel who I am, it’s my life.”
Bryce Byrd, 18, proudly sports a thick stripe of green hair that is hard to miss.
“I studied for three weeks (in a ballet class) and I got a scholarship to attend the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka, Fla., for college,” Byrd says. “I came from a little town in Arkansas where the biggest thing is Walmart, so I’d go on the internet and teach myself dance moves and put them all together and make my own choreography.”
When Carty thinks of her students going off to pursue their various goals, she struggles for words for a moment.
“I’m conscious of the little moments, like we’re visiting. I feel they are empowered by dance,” she says. “When they leave, I’m strong enough to give them away. I open the door when it’s time to go.”