When the music fades, the sound of 28 ballet shoes rhythmically scuffing the black practice mat fills the high-ceilinged practice room. "Sparkling, brilliant feet!" the instructor calls, flitting from student to student. "They should be like a jewel — well cut." The room's tallest ballerina attacks each ecarté with a determined seriousness, her right leg and arm exacting in each outward sweep. After a summer driving from Brooksville to Tampa, Orlando, Vermont and New York, with frantic one-night scrambles at home in between, this endless routine of ecartés is pretty soothing for Ashlyn Bolton.
She hopes that someday, her sacrifices and countless hours at the Patel Conservatory's barre — not to mention lessons in jazz, tap, hip-hop, lyrical, piano and voice — will land her on Broadway.
"I can't say what it is I love about dance," said Bolton, 14, of Brooksville, her face lighting up. "I just do."
It's that passion for dance that made Bolton sacrifice days at the pool and lazy mornings at home all summer to crisscross the East Coast for intensive dance camps, workshops and master classes.
After a string of auditions "just for the experience" landed her spots in selective national programs, Bolton and her mother, Kim, drove to Vermont for a tap dancing camp, to New York City for a weeklong workshop with the Rockettes and to Orlando for a two-week ballet intensive at the Orlando Conservatory.
Each time, they came home just long enough to unpack, do laundry, sleep in their own beds and repack before hitting the road again.
"No matter how much dancing she does, it's never enough," Kim Bolton said. "She'd dance all day long if she could."
When Bolton turned 9, she'd been dancing for seven years and she craved a higher intensity of instruction. So her mother, who home-schools her children, drove her to Patel once a week.
This summer, she was spending six afternoons a week there, sometimes not getting home until 11 p.m. Those daily drives add more than 600 miles a week to Kim's car. The speedometer crept higher during thousand-mile road trips.
Just this week, Bolton learned she had been accepted in the Rhythm and Sole Tap Ensemble at the Hoffman Institute at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
Bolton has such severe allergies to nuts and dairy that she can't risk being exposed to airplane peanuts, Kim said, so the family drives everywhere.
Her dedication would suit Bolton well in a ballet company, instructor Melissa Stafford said.
In the acting world, actors move through a revolving door of auditions. But ballets select their stars from among their pre-selected company, deciding based on work ethic, attitude and suitability for each part.
"Ashlyn's work ethic and focus is outstanding," said Stafford, who has worked with Bolton for four years. "Her determination to get every detail right, day in, day out, is what leads to success."
Bolton doesn't want to be a ballerina. But she wants to be on stage, and the strength and grace ballet requires serves dancers well for any type of dance.
Even so, she has the long-limbed grace of a ballerina.
After her recent growth spurt, she stands 5 foot 9 in ballet shoes, taller than Stafford and all the girls in her class.
On pointe, she's 6 foot 1.
Stafford reaches up to Bolton's hand, correcting the graceful curve of her fingers as she begins another ecarté. Her leg sweeps to the right, and back to the center.
"It will never be perfect," Stafford reminds the class as another soothing piano recording begins.
"All we can do is keep trying."
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 584-3179 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.