Gabriela Schiefer always remembered to smile, avoid mistakes and give it her all during her ballet shows. But inside, she could not help but feel a little sad when she glanced at the audience.
Her father, Army 1st Lt. Brian Schiefer, wasn't in the crowd to see her twirl, jump and glide effortlessly across the stage. His military commitments have always coincided with her performances.
"He's actually never seen me in a show," said Gabriela, 15, who lives in Valrico.
That will soon change.
Brian Schiefer is home on leave and will see his daughter dance as Clara, a top role in The Nutcracker, Saturday and Sunday at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
"It's going to be amazing," said Gabriela, a member of the Straz Center's Next Generation Ballet. "I can't wait for him to see me."
Brian Schiefer can't wait either. He is close to his daughter. They talk. They text. They email. She talks about plies, pointe shoes and pirouettes. He tries to understand her world through a phone or computer. But he hears the passion in her voice and hates missing the shows that mean so much to Gabriela.
"The military always seems to find a way to send me away," he said. "It's never intentional. It has always ended up falling when I was gone. As a father, it hurts. It's sad because you never get to enjoy any of it."
Gabriela's leap into ballet was almost a fluke. She was a good gymnast, earning many awards, including a state title at age 9. Her gymnastics coach suggested dance class to improve her floor routine in competitions. Gabriela resisted, countering that she was a gymnast, not a dancer.
She eventually agreed. A few months later, Gabriela begged her mom, Courtney Schiefer, to let her quit gymnastics and take dance. The pleadings worked and Gabriela, at age 11, starting pouring her energy and passion into dancing.
"I absolutely love it," she said. "I love the way it feels and the movement and the way you can express yourself onstage."
Jumping into ballet at 11 is unusual. Many girls beg to wear tutus and ballet slippers before they start kindergarten. More unusual? Gabriela is a top student after just four years of lessons.
Peter Stark, artistic director of the Straz Center's Next Generation Ballet, said Gabriela is bursting with natural talent.
"She is a tremendous dancer," he said, noting that she has a dancer's body and that her feet have the perfect arch. "She will be a professional dancer."
Thanks to her skills, Stark said, Gabriela will portray Clara in The Nutcracker in two of the three performances. She has another role in the third show.
"These roles are very demanding, Clara in particular," Stark said. "You need strong dancing technique and strong acting."
Last year, she had the Clara role in one of the three Nutcracker shows. That show was the only one that wasn't filmed. Gabriela had hoped to send a copy of the performance to her dad.
Stark felt horrible about the mistake. He is looking forward to seeing Brian Schiefer in the audience at this weekend's shows.
"We're also thrilled her dad can be here and see her," he said. "How great is that?"
Gabriela dances about 30 hours a week, Monday through Saturday, with the Next Generation Ballet. She is homeschooled so she can devote most of her day to dance.
Still, she puts in about four hours of schoolwork every day. Her mother won't budge on the need for an education. If Gabriela pursues dance after high school, her parents plan to encourage her to take a college course each semester.
"If something happens and she can't be a dancer, she has to have her education," Courtney Schiefer said.
She's just as quick to say she supports Gabriela's decision to devote her teenage years to dance. She knows that her daughter dreams of becoming a professional ballerina one day.
"I'm in awe of her," Courtney Schiefer said. "She is so dedicated. At 15, I was boy crazy. She just wants to make it. This is all her."
Brian Schiefer arrived in Valrico on Dec. 15 from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. There were tears, hugs and smiles. And they couldn't stop thinking or talking about one thing: Daddy will sit in the audience with the family this weekend to see Gabriela.
"He's going to see his girl dance," Courtney Schiefer said. "I think he's going to be really touched."
Monica Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.