Six days a week, Caitlin Birt packs a bag of snacks and tights and pointe shoes and rides a bus 30 minutes across town.
She can't tell you much about the route. In the five months since she moved here, Birt hasn't learned any streets. The Patel Conservatory is the only place she goes.
There, in a bright studio on the third floor, Birt becomes Dew Drop — her very first Nutcracker solo role.
At 19 years old, Birt is on the cusp of a professional dancing career. Her performance in the classic holiday ballet, which wraps up today at the Straz Center, is a little girl's dream come true.
To nail her solo part in the Waltz of the Flowers, Birt endured hundreds of hours of strenuous training on the sharpness of the foutette turns, the grace of the developpes. She practiced till her feet bled, till her shoes wore through to the wood inside.
Five months, eight hours a day, six days a week.
Plus a lifetime.
• • •
About the time she learned to tie her shoes, Birt learned to dance.
She fell in love with ballet at age 10 at the Orlando Ballet School. She took to the discipline, the routine and the long, graceful lines.
In sixth grade, Birt's mom let her stay home and take virtual classes so she had more time for stretches and strength exercises. By that time, she was doing 1,000 crunches a day.
She eventually won awards and danced principal roles at youth galas.
She never had time for prom.
Birt, originally from Daytona Beach, moved to Tampa this year to work with the Straz's Next Generation ballet company, which pays her a $120 biweekly stipend. Her parents help with rent.
Her teacher from Orlando, Peter Stark, who this year also moved to Tampa to head Patel's dance department, calls Birt one of his most dedicated students.
"Caitlin is a worker," Stark said. "She never stops."
On her one day off, she ices her sore muscles and sleeps. Once in awhile she watches television — Family Guy or Sex and the City.
She has no hobbies.
"I don't want to do anything else," Birt said. "I just want to be good at this."
She doesn't mind the training. There are few other professions where hard work is met with applause, she said.
When the curtains close today on the two-day show, Birt will spend a week at home before preparing for professional New York City auditions in January.
But until that final ovation, she will not rest.
• • •
The rehearsal studio is mostly empty. A couple of girls linger in a corner, chatting and fiddling with their hair. Across the room, a boy lounges over his laptop.
Birt peels herself off the floor, where she had been sitting, stretching, and teacher Stark scrolls through his iPod.
Suddenly, sounds of a harp fill the room. Birt glides to the center of the room, spirals into a double pirouette and lands in a pretty kneel, her arms sweeping overhead.
Her face is serene, her breathing steady, until she finally exits stage right and hunches over, nearly wheezing.
She's going over a million unnoticeable mistakes — worrying about her turn-out, her stamina, making mental notes to point her toes harder.
It seems harsh, she said, but it's worth it.
"When I'm on stage, there's nothing else going on. I'm not thinking about anything," Birt said. "Coming off stage, I feel like I can do anything."
She returns to her spot on the floor, folds over her legs and pushes herself further.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.