TEMPLE TERRACE - So you think you can dance?
If so and you're contemplating a crack at being a contestant on the Fox Network TV show or some other dance competition, you may be inspired by 20-year-old Thalia Arbelaez, whose mindset since early childhood has been to "reach for the stars."
For her, it's paid off.
The Temple Terrace resident and dance student at the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center in Tampa is an internationally acclaimed dancer who has performed before packed houses in places like Argentina, Colombia, Washington, D.C., and Denver.
Stage fright has never been an issue for Thalia, who's been performing onstage since she was 3 and whose diversified repertoire consists of tap, ballet, tango, flamenco and belly dancing.
"I love to dance. I feel happy onstage," she said.
Such was the case last week in Denver, where she was chosen to perform some of her dance routines before an audience of guests from throughout the country. In addition, she presented a 45-minute PowerPoint workshop titled, "Reasons to Dance."
The anticipation associated with an undertaking of that magnitude likely would invoke a few jitters in most young performers. That wasn't the case for Thalia, but she by no means fits the norm.
Thalia was born with Down syndrome and was in Denver to appear as a special guest at the National Down Syndrome Congress Annual Convention.
Her parents, Alicia and Arbey Arbelaez, say their daughter doesn't like the connotation associated with the words "Down syndrome." Instead, she calls herself "special."
When Thalia was born with the chromosomal abnormality, the doctor told her parents that if their child lived beyond age six months, she most likely never would walk.
It so happens that listening to music always has been a favorite pastime in the Arbelaez household, and when Thalia was learning to stand as a toddler, her father began to notice how she tapped her feet to the beat.
In the years since, Thalia's parents have devoted their lives to nurturing their daughter's love for music, as well as her passion for dancing.
By day they see that she gets to her three-day-a-week dance practices at Patel and her frequent lessons with the Temple Terrace Ballet. And every evening, Arbey turns on classical music to soothe his daughter to sleep.
You can also bet the couple has front-row seats at every one of her performances, no matter the location or the expense.
"My parents love me and always make me who I am," said Thalia, who graduated earlier this year from Pepin Academy. "They are the best parents in the whole wide world."
Susan Downey, Patel's lead instructor for musical theater, has been Thalia's dance teacher for five years. She describes the young woman's talent as a gift from a higher power.
"She's a stellar star student," Downey said. "She keeps right up with everybody, and she's not treated any differently than any of the others."
Downey also marvels at Thalia's organizational skills and promptness in addition to her dancing achievements.
"You never have to wonder where she is or whether she'll come prepared like you do with some of the other students," Downey said.
Tara Drangel from Pepin Academy said it was a privilege to teach Thalia.
"She's impressive in so many ways," Drangel said. "She makes a wonderful spokesperson for Down syndrome youngsters like her."
Thalia dreams of one day being an assistant dance instructor for special needs children and appearing on ABC TV's "Dancing With The Stars."
"My goal is I want to be a star," she said.
Alicia and Arbey Arbelaez have no inkling what the future might bring for their daughter.
"We just want her to be happy - that's all that really matters," her dad said.