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Patel Conservatory student finds her fit at London's Royal Ballet School

Hannah Beach heads the line in her dance class. With large, expressive eyes, delicate features and a warm smile, she exudes the grace and look of a young Audrey Hepburn. "And one … two … again … point-over-stretch-close-point, plie, … up, up, point, point," directs ballet instructor Peter Stark. With ease, Hannah adjusts, taking correction in stride.

Hannah, 16, is more than a typical teen with dreams of the Royal Ballet. In fact, she's already there. Hannah's skills blew away most of 5,000 competitors from around the world, making it to the finals in the Youth America Grand Prix, held in New York in May. Just 90 days later, her whole life changed. The promising young ballerina found herself on a plane to London with a $50,000 scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, where she started this fall.

At home in St. Petersburg during her first break recently, she was back at practice as usual with the Next Generation Youth Ballet at the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

Poised between the dancer and her ballet instructor in the next movement is Hannah's 13-year-old sister, Gabrielle. "Up, over, stretch," Stark tells them.

Up the girls go, perched atop their pink, box-toed ballet slippers.

Felicia Beach keeps her eyes fixed on her daughters, appreciating the rare opportunity for parents to sit in on Stark's classes.

"We get to watch once in the fall and once in the spring," Felicia explained. "This happens to be when Hannah's home, so this is perfect. I see the joy in both of them.

"Hannah takes Sundays off, but when we go on vacation, if it's been a couple of days, we have to find a ballet studio no matter where we are."

Scholastics are as important as dancing for the Beach girls. Early on, they were enrolled at Canterbury in St. Petersburg, then Berkeley Preparatory in Tampa, where Gabby is an eighth-grader.

Hannah moved to Tampa Preparatory to be close to the Patel Conservatory. Now, like other serious ballet students, her academics are handled online through Florida Virtual School, which uses public school teachers and a public school curriculum. Hannah can continue classes from England and stay in contact with her teachers.

The Royal Ballet is one of the largest dance organizations in the world, according to Stark, who explained that the school even considers the genetic makeup of the parents. "For a young dancer … it's like going to Harvard. Doors will open."

"That's why we let Hannah go," Felicia said. "She's gaining so much international knowledge she didn't have before.

"Sometimes in the ballet world, teachers want to hold on to the students as long as possible, but Peter is different," she said. "He's told me her goal should be to go to a world-class ballet school so hopefully they could place her with a world-class ballet company. By the time they're 18, they're already somewhere getting a job."

Life in London is different from growing up in St. Petersburg. There, Hannah is one of 30 students at the Wolf House, "upper school" housing owned by the Royal Ballet.

"I hadn't been to London before,'' she said. "I have to take the subway, cook, and take care of myself. I've adjusted well. It's nice to be independent."

Hannah, whose early training was in gymnastics, switched to ballet by second grade. By 2009, she was looking into classes at the Patel under Stark.

"This was the place to be for serious ballet training,'' Felicia said.

"Hannah and her sister both came here to audition for The Nutcracker,'' Stark said. "I thought both girls were lovely, but to be honest I was looking for a lead. It's a big child role. We'd done The Nutcracker at Straz for years. But we brought that role from Orlando, and cast supporting roles here. When we saw Gabby, we said, 'We have our lead.'

"As I began to work with Hannah, I was impressed most that she is self-driven and shares her passion of movement with the audience," Stark said. "As you are watching her dance, she allows you to feel what she's feeling without artifice. She intrigues you."

Hannah was cast in the leading role of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Straz and entered the Youth America Grand Prix competitions in May.

"The Royal Ballet has such a high standard,'' Hannah said. She wondered, " 'Am I good enough? Am I going to fit in?' It's more comfortable now. I realize they picked me for a reason; I fit in with everyone. Teachers are strict to make us work as hard as we possibly can.

"We go to this cafeteria in the Royal Opera House where the Royal Ballet performs,'' she said. "I get to watch them in rehearsal. It's amazing to see the principals, and you just want to be in their company."

Splitting up the family, though, hasn't been easy.

"This is the biggest challenge we've taken as parents, because she's younger," Felicia said. "Our older son is at Notre Dame, but (Hannah) left early."

"At first I didn't think much about it," said Gabby. "But when she was gone, there wasn't anyone to look up to if I forgot a (dance) combination or something. I wasn't used to not having a role model."

Back at the Royal Ballet School, Hannah will prepare for upcoming performances.

"In London we have the Grande Defile (Big Parade) ballet tradition,'' she said. "We'll start rehearsing in March."

Felicia Beach is still amazed. She had no idea the career that lay before her elder daughter.

"I thought she would be an architect," she said.

At practice, it's time for Hannah to solo. She bounces, looking like a marionette. Gabby is next. One of the perkiest in the class, she frolics, and does well. The students rotate again, line by line.

"That was a little bit of a mess, but it was a better mess," Stark sighs, smiling. He is proud of Hannah. "I honestly believe if a good opportunity comes, you should grab it."

Patel Conservatory student finds her fit at London's Royal Ballet School 11/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 6:04pm]
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