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A teen ballerina dances her way from Tampa to the Royal Ballet of London

TAMPA

Hannah Bettes moved away from home when she was 14 years old.

She wanted to be a professional ballerina. Instructors agreed she had the raw talent, but she needed more training.

Her parents rented an apartment in Tampa's Channel District, just minutes away from an acclaimed teacher at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts — but a two-hour drive from their house in DeLand, north of Orlando.

Her mom, a nurse anesthetist, and dad, a sales rep, as well as her grandmother all took turns commuting to ensure she never spent a night alone and also to drive her to morning practices.

She attended school online and gave up hanging out with friends and doing other typical teenage things. She visited her four sisters on Sundays, her only day off.

It was a world of dance that few ever see: parents uprooting their lives, coaches leading rigorous training schedules, kids dedicated to realizing their dreams.

"I promise, 15, 20 years from now, when your career is over, you will be able to look back and say it was all worth it," her father, Rodney Bettes, told her.

Now, just two years later, Hannah has an array of awards and honors to her credit and is planning another move — this time the prestigious Royal Ballet of London on a full scholarship.

She has become a celebrity in ballet circles, with YouTube videos of her performances yielding more than 100,000 views. Her natural flexibility in dance has been compared to Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps' unusually long arm span.

"Every now and then I'd wish I was normal," Hannah said. "Then I remember I am doing this for a reason. This is what I want to do. It will all be worth it."

• • •

The first time Peter Stark watched Hannah Bettes perform, she stunned him.

Hannah was just 12, dancing a variation from Swan Lake in a regional competition in Orlando.

Stark was an internationally renowned teacher of ballet wunderkinds whose former students were dancing in major ballet companies throughout in America.

"I was amazed," said Stark, who once danced with the New York City Ballet. "You have to understand. Ballet is a visual art form. There's an aesthetic we are trying to create. You're striving for a perfection of lines. She is remarkable. She is perfect."

A year later, when Hannah signed up for a class at a ballet school in Orlando where Stark was director, he told her parents she wasn't getting the instruction she needed.

Shortly after, Stark joined the Straz as its dance department chair and Hannah followed.

By her second year, the Betteses relocated Hannah to a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance to the Straz, and her grandmother moved in with her.

Until that point, Anna Cozzy, a retired registered nurse, had only visited her grandchildren a few times a year because she lived in New York.

"It's like basically moving in with your neighbor that you didn't know that well," Cozzy said, chuckling. "And your neighbor is a teenager."

Soon, they got to know each other and worked through their differences. Hannah's messy bedroom was one sore spot — Cozzy made sure Hannah kept her door shut.

After seven to nine hours a day training and dancing, Hannah spent evenings with her grandmother watching episodes of CSI, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice over dinner.

They grew closer and Hannah grew more independent. Gone were the days of family movies on Sundays, miniature golf outings and mall trips. Hannah only saw her parents and sisters once a month during her second year at the Straz.

"I didn't see my family as much and I missed them, obviously," she said. "But it was an easy decision for us because I decided this is what I wanted to do and my parents supported me 100 percent. Of course it has forced me to grow up and mature more quickly."

In the mornings, she cooked her own breakfast of scrambled eggs. Sometimes she'd eat it with an English muffin or fruit. Then she did her class work through Florida Virtual School, which allowed her to be homeschooled. She'd pack a lunch of a sandwich, granola bar and fruit before walking to the Straz with other dancers around 10:45 a.m.

Now, Stark says, word of Hannah's talent has spread. A quarter of the out-of-state students who moved to Tampa to train as part of the Straz's Next Generation Ballet program came because of Hannah Bettes, he said.

Whenever the Straz uploads a video of Hannah dancing, it gets 40,000 views. Several other videos of past dances on YouTube.com have more than 100,000 views.

From her proportion to her lines to her flexibility, there is not a physical flaw, Stark said.

When she does a split, her feet arc so much, her toes touch the ground. The bend in her feet are so extreme, she's fallen out of her ballet pointe shoes.

"I've never seen that with any dancer, ever," Stark said. "It's amazing."

Like Phelps the swimmer, Stark said, Hannah has an advantage.

"However, it still takes dedication and discipline and hard work and determination and fearlessness on stage," Stark said. "She is the best girl I have ever taught."

Earlier this year Hannah placed second and won the "Audience Choice" award at the elite Prix de Lausanne ballet competition in Switzerland. As a result, she received a full scholarship to any of the top 30 ballet schools in the world.

Shortly after she turned 16 in March, Hannah won first place in the Senior Women's division at the Youth America Grand Prix finals in New York — the world's largest student ballet competition.

To date, she has competed in about 40 dance competitions in the past eight years and has always placed in the top three, Rodney Bettes said.

She is also vying with two other dancers to be on the cover of Dance Spirit magazine. Online voters will choose, and the competition begins today. She was chosen as a finalist because of her exceptional ballet technique, poise and maturity, said Alison Feller, the magazine's deputy editor in chief.

Late last week, Hannah left for a competition in China. When she returns, she will spend the summer training in New York. Then it's off to London.

"It's been a project," her father said. "But I told her God gave her that talent to share with the world."

• • •

Hannah took to dancing at a young age. At age 7, she accompanied her mom to a jazz studio where an older sister took classes. The teacher offered a free lesson and Hannah joined her. Ten minutes into the lesson, the instructor emerged, excited. She insisted Hannah join their competitive team.

The little girl who had wanted to become either a veterinarian or a plastic surgeon entered her first dance competition when she was 8. Rodney Bettes recalls telling his wife, Stacey, the endeavor was too expensive to pursue.

But 20 seconds into Hannah's solo performance, tears streamed down his face. "It was a no-brainer," Rodney Bettes recalled. "We had to do it."

She placed eighth out of 190 kids.

At 9, Hannah exploded onto the dance scene, performing both jazz and ballet — and winning.

At 12, she let go of jazz and slipped on her ballet shoes permanently.

"I always liked dancing," Hannah said. "But I didn't love it until I started ballet."

Pretty soon, Rodney Bettes found himself on the golf course talking about dance maneuvers with his buddies, whose daughters also dance. Other golfers, overhearing their banter about pirouettes, would chuckle.

Bettes didn't care. He knew his daughter was special.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Voting for Hannah: Hannah Bettes is in a magazine cover contest for Dance Spirit. Voting begins today and runs through July 31 at dancespirit.com/cms. (Only one vote allowed per IP address. Hannah and two other dancers (Alyssa Ness, from Ramsey, Minn., and Megan Skalla, from Draper, Utah), were selected as finalists from video entries.

A teen ballerina dances her way from Tampa to the Royal Ballet of London 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 4:30am]
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