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Ballet dancers form graceful rapport for 'The Nutcracker'

The dimple in her left cheek deepened as Naomi Houston smiled and glided into a series of pirouettes and quick, dainty steps.

Beside her, Kenneth Shelby was Cavalier to her Sugar Plum Fairy, one of the best-known pairings in The Nutcracker ballet.

As they worked out the kinks at rehearsal a day after Thanksgiving, Naomi occasionally turned to Kenneth, spoke softly and watched for his response.

She is hearing impaired. He is not. It is a unique partnership that flourishes with the aid of an imperceptible system of touch and eye contact.

"They work together as two halves of the same person,'' said Suzanne B. Pomerantzeff, their teacher at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.

Sean Musselman, principal dance coach for The Nutcracker production and ballet master for the St. Petersburg Ballet Company, added, "To me, it's like watching two little classical jewels.''

This week audiences will get to see for themselves as Naomi, a senior, and Kenneth, a sophomore, dance in PCCA's production of the holiday classic.

Naomi, who has been hearing impaired since birth and lip reads, began dancing at 6.

"When I first started dancing, I was way off the beat,'' said the 17-year-old, who "hears'' The Nutcracker music by placing her hands on the backstage speakers. While performing, she feels the vibrations in her feet. She also hears the bass notes.

"When I'm dancing, I'm just like everybody else, just moving through space,'' she said.

Naomi got her first pair of hearing aids soon after her second birthday. Her parents, Helen and the Rev. Rickey Houston, of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, say they're overjoyed, but not nervous about their daughter's Nutcracker role.

"She can hold her own, and she has definitely become her own self-advocate,'' her mother said.

Pomerantzeff — Ms. P to her students — sees no limitations when she looks at Naomi.

"It took a long time before she realized that she had way more potential than even she thought,'' said Pomerantzeff, choreographer of this week's performance.

Pomerantzeff praised Kenneth, Naomi's partner in The Nutcracker pas de deux, saying it's unusual for a sophomore to dance the Cavalier role.

Kenneth, 16, who wants to be a professional dancer and attended the prestigious Rock School of Dance Education in Philadelphia in the summer, was surprised by his selection.

"There is a guy better than me, but you've got to stay focused on what you're doing and I guess good things happen to you,'' he said.

"That was one of the pressures I was feeling,'' Naomi added. "We have two great understudies. It helps you push yourself.''

Pomerantzeff agreed that there are other dancers who are stronger and more experienced in the program, but she said it's important to make the right pairing.

"We kept mixing the dancers to see how they move together. …The two of them bring this precious sense of innocence and a connection musically. They are very, very easy to work with. Neither of them has an attitude,'' she said.

Kenneth started learning ballet at Perkins Elementary School and continued his studies at John Hopkins Middle School.

"My mom made me choose whether to play sports or dancing; luckily I chose dancing,'' he said.

Besides the rigors that come with his Nutcracker role, Kenneth must make an extra effort to communicate with Naomi. It's a challenge he doesn't mind.

"It puts you on your game,'' he said. "In one part, when I have her wrist, I squeeze it a little bit to give her movement cues.''

Their coaches first suggested that they develop a method of communication, Naomi said.

"We formed our own sense of communication through eye contact. It's a difficult thing to explain, but since we have developed such a deeper relationship and trust we are able to tell when either of us is ready or not,'' she said in an e-mail.

"Having Kenneth as a partner is amazing. I can honestly say I couldn't have asked for anyone else to partner with me.''

If there's one thing she relishes, it's being an African-American dancing a lead in a classical ballet.

"I cherish this opportunity of being the Sugar Plum Fairy,'' she said, adding that she hopes to inspire other African-American girls who dream of being ballerinas.

Last week as they rehearsed, Naomi mostly smiled, but at times bit her lips in concentration. After, Musselman said he was pleased. "At the very beginning of rehearsal process, I was nervous,'' he said. "I can see they can pull it off, especially after today."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

If you go: 'The Nutcracker'

7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday (Naomi Houston and Kenneth Shelby perform in the evening). Tickets are available at the box office, $20; students, $10. Call (727) 893-5452, ext. 2031. Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S.

Ballet dancers form graceful rapport for 'The Nutcracker' 12/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 8:59am]
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