Olivia Gusti adjusts her footwork in front of a wall of mirrors at the Next Generation Ballet for the Patel Conservatory in Tampa. Instructor Ivonne Lemus shouts instructions and assurances over roaring classical music.
In a series of leaps, Olivia, 15, darts from one corner of the studio to another in preparation for the Prix de Lausanne, an international competition for ballet students between the ages of 15 and 18. The St. Petersburg resident is one of 60 students globally and one of 10 in the United States to qualify for the competition. This year she placed in the top 12 at the Youth America Grand Prix, a nationwide competition.
The hours of training require the support of her family, where her father's military background comes in handy. John Gusti, 50, balances supporting his household and keeping his daughter focused. It's not a challenge for the former Marine.
"It may sound like this pressure comes from us, but the pressure comes from the schedules, the programs and life," John said. "We're just here for a backing. I'm here to give you the lift."
John and Sharla Gusti encouraged their daughter to try ballet from the age of 2. By 6, Olivia was focused on dance studies in Pensacola. What started as fun twirls for the 4-year-old shifted to a desire to perfect her movements.
"She was more interested in getting it right, even at that level, than just spinning and twirling with your head in the air with no direction," John said. It was then he realized it was time for Olivia to pursue the next level with The Nutcracker performances at the Pensacola Ballet.
Olivia's passion for ballet brought the family to St. Petersburg five years ago. As she trained more, the intensity of her lessons grew. She participated in private studies with Cuban and Russian instructors who challenged her to practice for five hours every Saturday. It wore at her interest.
Sharla Gusti recalls hearing Olivia complain of long hours, repetitive studies and exhaustion. She talked to John about Olivia's complaints. He gave Olivia a choice: ballet or piano.
"If you make the choice, whatever choice you make, there is no complaining, no negativity and you better give it your all," John told her.
Olivia chose ballet. The complaining stopped, John said, when she realized that it wasn't fun and games anymore and it was time for serious work. Olivia began focusing on different muscles to balance her limited flexibility to stay competitive.
"I picked ballet because it's more physically demanding and I don't like using my fingers," Olivia said. "You also get to use your artistry and your face when you dance."
Olivia cycled through instructors for pointe work, classical and modern ballet while auditioning for programs such as the School of American Ballet, hosted at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. She also enrolled in summer intensive programs.
"She's just been working very hard every step of the way," said Peter Stark, Next Generation Ballet artistic director.
Olivia and fellow Prix qualifier Tanner Bleck, 15, of Tampa, study daily for up to seven hours with ballet classes, partnering studies, stretching, pointe work and rehearsal for Straz Center performances. Ballet dominates Olivia's days, but not before rising early for dual-enrollment courses through St. Petersburg College.
Olivia and her father will travel to Switzerland so she can compete for six days, beginning Sunday. He will be unable to watch her at work against competitors or demonstrate her skills in front of top ballet companies until the final performance. He plans to spend his time speaking with representatives from various schools and compiling information about the schools' qualities.
"It's really a tremendous honor,'' Stark said. "It's like being chosen for the Olympic team. These are the best dance students out there worldwide."