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A lovely age

Before Laura Gaona turned 15 on Saturday, she wasn't allowed to wear makeup, date, dance with men outside her family or go out to parties with her friends. The Quinceanera _ quince means 15 in Spanish _ is a traditional rite of passage for young Latina women. Laura's day started with a Mass in her honor at St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater. There, she thanked God and her parents for her Catholic faith and asked for guidance for the rest of her life. The party that followed was filled with food, gifts and dancing that lasted until midnight. Laura had five damas, female attendants, five chambelanes, male attendants, and an escort. She estimates her party cost about $7,000, but friends and family helped to pay for pieces of it. Laura's dress, which cost more than $400, was purchased for her by her cousin.

Laura Gaona waits to go onto the dance floor and waltz with her date, Ricardo Hernandez. Laura and her 10 attendants, male and female, took waltz lessons every Sunday for about seven weeks to prepare.

Laura dances with Carlos Villa Saturday night at her Quinceanera celebration. The party started at St. Cecelia's Catholic Church in Clearwater and moved to a rented hall. Laura said about 250 people attended, with some coming from as far away as Chicago. Laura applies the finishing touches to her makeup Saturday morning in her cousin's room just before leaving for the church. It was the first day she's been able to wear makeup, but Laura says she's been dreaming about her Quinceanera since she was 13. "You only have it once in a lifetime," she said.

Above, Laura gets her hair done Saturday morning _ she was at the salon at 6 a.m. Below, Laura's parents, Lucia Valdez, left, and Eliseo Gaona, pray during the Mass in Laura's honor.

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