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Ballet-loving siblings stay in shape, in synch

Daniel and Gabriela Johnson of St. Petersburg both hope to be professional ballet dancers.

Courtesy of the Johnsons

Daniel and Gabriela Johnson of St. Petersburg both hope to be professional ballet dancers.

They were human gazelles, their bodies sleek and graceful.

And a little smelly, really.

After all, it was near the end of ballet practice with book bags and towels and slippers dipped in sweat.

The man standing grim-faced and watchful at the front of the mirrored room — the one ordering a redo of the double twirl — reminded me of a bald, white version of 1980s' Debbie Allen: You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying …

This real-life setting was the Patel Conservatory at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, where small groups of girls, then boys leapt and whirled across the floor, and 18-year-old Daniel Johnson among them.

He took part in the summer program to stay in shape, and because he likes to dance all the time. Others, like his 16-year-old sister Gabriela (Gabi) were auditioning for spots with the Orlando Ballet, which partners with the conservatory and has a school there.

With muscles in constant motion and toes drilling into the floor, both expected to be sore come morning. The pain seemed more adrenaline than deterrent, though. And talking with them was like stepping into the beginnings of a fanciful tale about young dreams, hard work, the inevitable tough break and love.

The love of dance: "I can never get enough," Daniel says, dismissing the bruised and chapped-looking toes peeking from his sandals. "I need more, more, more."

Love for each other: As they lean in for a half hug, "We're like best friends," Gabi says.

They've been dancing about six years, since she was 10 and her brother was 12, the last few at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. Their proud St. Petersburg parents, David and Caryle Johnson, watched the school's production of The Nutcracker with Daniel playing the cavalier, Gabi the sugar plum fairy.

But Daniel won't be around much next year. He's off to the Boston Conservatory on a full dance scholarship. Gabi's still deciding what to do. Auditioning isn't her strength, she says. She gets nervous and worries whether her movements convey enough passion to take a performance beyond mere technique to physical poetry.

Daniel wouldn't let her self-critique be the last word. "She's fierce, but she's calm," he interjected. "She just looks really beautiful."

At the Patel Conservatory were teens from all over, the boys extra-toned, the girls slender with hair pulled back into tight buns. They had come from Boston, New York, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Seattle.

Issa Saunders, 14, came from the Bahamas and has been dancing since age 3 or 4.

"I don't like the pain, but I like the feeling of growing taller and taller," she told me. "And it feels pretty."

Untold numbers of teens across the country take ballet, but probably 100 or so professional positions open up each year, said Peter Stark, director for the Orlando Ballet School. Who will make it? So much has to be considered, he said, like a dancer's natural physique, mobility, even the bend of the foot.

But ballet isn't the haven for long-necked waifs it was once presumed to be. In every company, you now have dancers short and tall. Also, many modern routines are vibrant, calling for energy and stamina. The Orlando Ballet School's summer program has rejected kids who were too thin and, in some cases, requested bone density tests from doctors for the children's safety, said Stark, who works alongside Bruce Marks, the artistic director for Orlando Ballet and the man who stood in front of the room that day.

Daniel builds strength by dancing with 20-pound weights strapped to his legs.

His is a more contemporary ballet style; Gabi's is classical dance.

To watch brother and sister, so in synch in their visions for the future, you would never guess that they don't come from the same genes, that each was adopted.

"Inseparable," Daniel says.

But soon they will part. Shortly after her audition in Tampa, an official told Gabi she had earned a spot with Orlando Ballet II, a bridge between student and professional dancers. If she takes it, she'll move to Orlando and finish her senior year there.

A day after our interview, brother and sister flew to New York for an intensive summer program where Gabi is also auditioning for another company.

Stark said they have what it takes.

"They're both going to be professional dancers," he said. "And that's a huge statement."

Ballet-loving siblings stay in shape, in synch 06/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 6:45pm]
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