Through perseverance and determination, a young dancer from St. Petersburg surpassed physical and socioeconomic challenges to pursue his dream all the way to New York at one of the nation's most prestigious ballet dance companies.
DaJuan Booker has performed at Dance Theatre of Harlem for the past four years. An unusual feat for someone who started dancing in high school.
After attending Lealman Intermediate School he was accepted at Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School with little dance experience.
A swimmer since the age of 10, his body structure was not ideal for a dancer but he didn't let that stop him.
"It was something different," Booker said. "A way for me to get away from everything."
At the age of 22, this native of St. Petersburg has accomplished what some people in better circumstances never do: his dream.
"My parents didn't really take care of me," he said. From the age of 3, Booker was passed from one family member to another. He was raised by his cousin whom he calls mom, and his three younger brothers grew up in other family members' households.
At 14 Booker, had his first interaction with what would become his catalyst to a better life. But he was not impressed with ballet at first.
"I thought to myself, 'What am I doing?' " he said. "I thought I knew what I was getting myself into but I didn't know until I got there."
The head of the dance department at PCCA and the co-founder of Academy of Ballet Arts where Booker also danced, Suzanne Pomerantzeff, said he was not a natural dancer.
"It was not an easy body to work with," Pomerantzeff said. "He was very tight. Not very loose muscles."
During his first three years of high school, Booker ran track, played football and swam, in addition to his dance classes.
"I danced three hours a day and three hours after school," Booker said.
He attended practice when he wasn't dancing.
It wasn't long before Booker fell in love with the art form and became eager to succeed.
"It was sheer hard work," Pomerantzeff said. "He just wanted it more."
Booker walked or rode his bike 45 minutes to Pomerantzeff's school near Pasadena. She gave him a scholarship to the academy and made sure Booker attended all the major auditions for summer programs.
"He's like my adopted son," she said.
The summer before Booker's senior year he was accepted into an intensive program at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton.
After attending, Booker said he became really serious about pursuing dance. His senior year he entered Youth America Grand Prix, a competition that awards students scholarships to prestigious dance schools.
Booker made it to the finals and won a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School in New York.
After a summer with the school, Booker wanted to pursue classical ballet and auditioned for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where he has been able to dance at the White House as well as in Bermuda.
Through DTH's Dancing Through Barriers program, he is able to reach out to the community through dance.
"He is a self-made man," Pomerantzeff said. "He worked hard enough to get this."
She said it is rare that a professional dancer makes it so far after starting so late. Most professional dancers start at 5 or 6 years old.
But Booker is modest about his accomplishments, said Manual Sykes, pastor at Bethel Community Baptist Church.
"He definitely did not have some of the advantages as the other kids," Sykes said.
Sykes' son, Ephraim, and Booker have been best friends since their freshman year at Gibbs. The two were also roommates in New York.
"He had a choice of two roads; not trying to get out of the area and achieve something," Sykes said. "He chose a positive course. I think he is a trail blazer in his family."
Booker had surgery last January because of a stress fracture in his left tibia. But he's back in shape and said he wants to audition for dance companies around the world. And when his body won't allow him to dance professionally, he wants to teach.
He has returned to St. Petersburg for a few months during his off time from DTH and will be a guest performer in the Academy of Ballet Arts Summer Intensive Workshop Performance at 3 p.m. on Aug. 5. He will dance the pas de deux from Ballet le Corsaire with one of the students at the academy.
"It feels good that they look up to me," Booker said. "Because I've been where they are, and I've made it."
Nicole Bardo-Colon can be reached at 893-8779 or email@example.com