Rows of toes clad in pink ballet shoes stretched along the barre at Dance Emporium on a recent afternoon. But the size-14 black shoes stood out, as does the wearer, 15-year-old North Central freshman Christian Brower. Not only is the 5-foot-11 dancer the tallest in the room, he’s also the only boy.
Those extra-large feet will soon be taking him all the way to China. Brower and 13-year-old home-schooled student Eilis Smith have been selected as members of the 2009 Ballet Ambassadors to China summer intensive program with the Long Beach Ballet. The two students from the North Side dance studio are part of a 45-member group chosen out of hundreds of hopefuls who auditioned throughout the nation.
Leianne Raymond, Brower’s mother, said when her son was little, he’d accompany a friend’s daughter to dance class and come home begging to be allowed to take his own lessons. But his mom objected at first because of her own background and attitudes. “I was never into dance, I was into sports,” said Raymond. “I’m embarrassed to say I said the typical, ‘boys don’t dance.’ ”
But Brower danced anyway. Raymond said, “He’d dance in the grocery store, he’d dance at home – he was always dancing.” So she agreed to let him take lessons.
To Brower’s surprise, dance wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. He recalled his first jazz class. “It was really hard.”
Nevertheless, Camille Camp, owner of Dance Emporium said, “Right away, I saw talent in him.”
Then came Brower’s first recital. The glow of the spotlight and the magic of applause made his diligence worth the effort, and he hasn’t looked back. “I can dance and just be me,” he said. “It gets your emotions out better than anything else.”
Eilis Smith, another dancer chosen for the trip, agreed. She’s been dancing since she was 3 1/2. She described her passion for dance this way: “I can get onstage and just let myself go,” she said, her warm brown eyes sparkling. “I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else, I can just be myself.”
Her mother, Michele Smith, said she was told Eilis had “weak feet,” when she began dancing. The instructors gave her strengthening exercises. “I’d find her off by herself practicing,” said Smith. “She worked very hard.”
That persistence paid off. Eilis said she’s looking forward to training with the Long Beach Ballet and appearing onstage with the dancers in China.
The two students will spend three weeks in Long Beach with master teachers and then fly to China compliments of the Chinese government. Once there, they’ll spend a week studying with the National Ballet of China in Guangzhou, and finally will be escorted on a two-week performance tour as the culmination of this unique six-week program. Brower was especially elated when he learned he’d been awarded a $1,000 scholarship.
For him, the opportunity to perform with and learn from other male dancers is a welcome one. He admitted it’s difficult to be a boy who loves to dance. “Junior high was extremely hard,” he said. “I kind of stopped talking to people. I didn’t wear anything with dance logos on it.”
Camp added, “Junior high makes or breaks male dancers – most don’t continue.” A major growth spurt when Brower was 13 intensified his struggle. “I grew from, like, 5-2 to 5-11, over a summer,” he said with a grimace. He had to learn to work with his new, gangly body. Camp is glad that Brower persevered and has come into his own. “He was my first student to take a national title,” she said, referring to his selection as Mr. Junior Spotlight in 2005.
While initially resistant to ballet, Brower said now it’s his favorite activity. “I get pretty nervous before I go onstage, but then everything goes away and I’m just dancing.”
Both Brower and Smith have the enthusiastic support of their families. Michele Smith said, “Eilis pushes herself. My role is to try to pull her back.” While thrilled about the opportunity for her daughter, Smith said, “It will be the first time we’ve been apart so long.”
Leianne Raymond remains thankful she gave into Brower’s pleas for dance lessons. “He’s one of those kids who just found his passion,” she said. “He wants to dance his whole life.”
Her son agreed. “I don’t see me doing anything else, but dance.”