TAMPA — Girls in pink and black leotards tiptoe across a wooden floor as a piano concerto plays. Mirrored walls reflect graceful, lithe bodies.
Eight-year-old La'Quana Hagins reaches the center, dips into a plie and springs into the air.
She has a natural ability to "feel" the bottom of a plie, says her teacher, Melissa Stafford. And she is committed to the slow, focused work, taking three ballet lessons a week.
When class ends, most of the students walk with their parents to cars parked under the building's twinkling lights. La'Quana climbs down three flights of stairs and meets her mother and younger sisters, who are waiting in the lobby.
La'Quana's mother has no car. She pushes the baby in a stroller, while holding the 4-year-old's hand. They leave the Patel Conservatory for their 20-minute walk home, passing drunks and speeding cars.
Finally, they arrive at the iron-gated homeless shelter, where the music inside is hip-hop and La'Quana's friends call her "Star."
• • •
Before she could walk, La'Quana was dancing to the blues with her great-grandmother. She died last month, but La'Quana still remembers that when her great-grandmother held up a finger, it meant, "one more time."
Until she was 7, she and her mother moved between her grandmother's home in Lake Okeechobee and her father's home in Tampa.
Then Darnisha Hagins left the girls' father in July 2008. They weren't married, and he is in prison now on charges of cocaine possession and sales, set to get out in October 2011.
With nowhere else to go, Hagins went to Metropolitan Ministries with her month-old-baby and two girls. Luckily, they got a room that day.
La'Quana became a student at Metropolitan Ministries School and made straight A's, her mother says proudly.
The Patel Conservatory partners with the school to expose kids to the arts, and La'Quana was offered a scholarship for advanced ballet classes after taking a course at the school.
Initially, she came across as quiet, a little shy, says Taylor Beard, another of La'Quana's teachers.
"I feel that dance has helped her with her self-esteem — and she probably doesn't even know it," Beard says. "To me, she walks a little taller and more confident than a year ago."
La'Quana went to ballet summer camp and started taking five classes a week: three of ballet and one each of tap and theater. One ballet teacher watched her leap and told her she should be a professional dancer, La'Quana says.
Her father wants her to be a gymnast, she says. She has visited him in prison, along with his mother, but hasn't told him that she's been practicing gymnastics. That will be her big surprise for him when he gets out, she says.
She also has considered a police job. Or maybe she will be a lawyer, she says, so she can get her mother out of jail if the need ever arose.
Hagins was charged with cocaine possession in 2006, but says she is now drug free. She was taking classes at Erwin Technical Center toward an accounting specialist diploma, so she could become a bookkeeper.
La'Quana has plans, too. She will get an education, a car, a mansion. Maybe a maid and butler. Or maybe a normal house.
She will be a good Christian, like her great-grandmother who prayed with her by the fireplace in Lake Okeechobee.
• • •
La'Quana and her sisters were with their mother last week when a Tampa police officer pulled over the car Hagins was driving on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The car belonged to a relative, and Hagins didn't have a valid driver's license. There was marijuana inside.
She was arrested and charged with driving without a valid license and possession of marijuana. She was transferred Wednesday to Pasco County Jail, facing further charges of violating probation.
The marijuana wasn't hers, she says during an interview there.
After being arrested, Hagins called her mother to pick up the girls. They have been staying with Carmelitta Hagins in an East Tampa apartment.
La'Quana tried to tell her grandmother how to get to ballet class last week, but they got lost looking for the Patel Conservatory and turned around and went home.
Meanwhile, "Star," as she is known, is still practicing, hoping for a role in the Performing Art Center's spring production of The Little Mermaid.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or email@example.com.