She's just 14, but Katarina Smith achieved a goal that few ballet dancers will ever attain.
Along with other members of Tampa's Next Generation Ballet, Katarina recently performed in New York City's Lincoln Center.
The young dancer from Riverview is kind of low-key about the accomplishment.
"It went well," she said. "We got good applause from the audience."
Peter Stark, the artistic director of Next Generation Ballet, said Katarina and her colleagues in the company may not yet fully comprehend.
The company's dancers are students on the verge of starting their professional careers, and they may not have the experience to appreciate how rare their achievement is.
"I don't think they quite get it yet, some of them," Stark said.
It's a goal they'll all be striving for in their careers, he said, "and a lot of them will never get there again."
But perhaps even more impressive than Next Generation's actually dancing at the Koch Theatre — the space in Lincoln Center designed by legendary choreographer George Balanchine specifically for dance — is the journey the company took to get there.
Last year, Next Generation, which comprises dance students from the Patel Conservatory, took part in a prestigious international student dance competition called the Youth America Grand Prix. Some 5,000 dancers, between ages 8 and 19, took part in the competition. Out of hundreds of dance programs, Patel Conservatory's was named the best in the world.
First prize was the opportunity to dance at Lincoln Center, on a program with some of the best and best-known companies in the world.
Not all of the members of Next Generation got to make the trip to New York. Some stayed in town and performed in Opera Tampa's production of Aida.
Next Generation performed a piece called Shostakovich Suite, with choreography by Richard Cook. The program was called "Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow," and featured such noted dancers as Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo.
Katarina Smith seemed to take it all in stride.
"I was like nervous at first, but once I got on stage, it was more exciting," she said. "Once I got on stage I wasn't nervous anymore."
Katarina has been dancing since she was 8. She started at Brandon Ballet, and joined Patel last year.
She's in eighth grade at Progress Village Middle Magnet. She takes her academic classes from 7:30 until 10:30 in the morning, then goes to Patel for a full day of dance classes. She takes one more academic class online when she gets home.
"I just like the freedom I feel in my body when I dance," she said.
Next year, Katarina will enroll at Blake High School, the arts magnet right across the Hillsborough River from the conservatory. She'll take her core academic courses there and continue at Patel.
It seems like a difficult life for a 14-year-old, but Katarina actually has it a little easier than some of her classmates. It's not unusual for young dancers to move here with their families to study at Patel.
"Katarina happens to be from Riverview, but we have students from all over the country," Stark said. Among the current crop of student dancers are two boys who played Billy Elliot in national tours of the Broadway musical of the same name.
A lot of Patel alumni dance with the most prestigious companies in the world. Many get into schools and apprentice programs for those companies with the help of $50,000 in scholarships they earn through the Young America Grand Prix.
As for Katarina, she and the other dancers haven't had much time to bask in the glory of appearing in one of America's most prestigious dance theaters. They're already busy, staying for hours after their regular classes rehearsing for Next Generation's production of Swan Lake this weekend at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at email@example.com.