"One ... and two. One … and two. Open first … and hold."
Peter Stark directs his troupe of young ballet students. Of the more than 500 who auditioned to be a part of Next Generation Ballet's summer course, 183 made it. The average age is 14.
These students are slender. They all wear form-fitting tights. Their eager sounds — tapping toes, inside jokes, graceful landings — fill the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The halls have taken on the aroma of 183 pairs of used ballet flats and hard work.
This will be the first year the Patel Conservatory has held a summer intensive program lasting this long. For the next five weeks, students will dance six hours a day. They will learn classical and contemporary ballet among other lessons, such as jazz, character, tap and stretch.
At the end of the summer, they will put on a variety show featuring classical and original choreography. Some of the students will get the chance to choreograph their own works for the final showcase.
More than half of the dancers are from Florida, many from the Tampa area. The rest come from as far away as New York, Wisconsin, Texas and Colorado.
Stark was looking for dancers with a particular physique, but he stresses that attitude could overcome physical limitations. "Sometimes you just see that sparkle in an eye and think, 'That kid can do it,' " Stark said.
Stark has been dancing since he was 7 and has performed in lead and solo acts with troupes in New York, Boston and Washington.
"I was a good dancer, but I'm a better teacher," Stark said.
One of his students, Molly Hellier, agrees.
"Being surrounded by that talent pushes you to be a better dancer," she said.
When she was in first grade, all the other girls were dancing. Hellier went along with them and found herself loving the art. Now 16, she is in the international baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School and hopes success in dancing will eventually help her get into Harvard.
"I think that the professionalism and the values that our teachers here instill in us transcend into other aspects of life," she said.