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Tampa Prep student juggles school and a dance career

Carlin Dixon performs as the Spanish lead in the Nutcracker.
Carlin Dixon performs as the Spanish lead in the Nutcracker.
Published Feb. 11, 2015

Soft jazz permeates the busy atmosphere. The flashing lights of billboard signs illuminate the surrounding sights of valet workers rushing from one client to the next, chauffeurs whisking around the circular driveway and a sea of people lining up at the ticket booth. In other words, it is a typical evening at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Tampa. But hidden behind the grandiose buildings, golden-lined glass doors and bustling crowds lies a much more intimate setting, home to the Bay Area's most elite dance company.

Inside this secluded center is Carlin Dixon, Tampa Preparatory sophomore and Next Generation Ballet (NGB) student. She's everything a leading dancer really could be: Tall, poised and lean. With her hair slicked back into a bun and sweats on, she leads me up an enclosed cement staircase into an empty studio, her free place.

"I started at Brucie Klay's, but that was when I was four or five, so I was really little," Dixon says. "I really wanted more serious ballet training, so my mom moved me over to the Patel because she knew that was serious ballet training, and I loved it. I've pretty much been here ever since, so for nine years, but I love it."

As she laces her pointe shoes, we chat about school, a life balancing academics and a "pre-professional" career, as she calls it, at age 15.

"Okay, this is really big," Dixon remarks, a twinge of hidden excitement in her voice. "I'm a trainee here, which means that I'm almost a professional, but not quite. I don't get paid or anything, but it still requires a lot."

Unlike most teenagers, Dixon only spends half-days at school. After her fourth class for the day, she rushes to change into her ballerina attire and rides on a golf cart with the other six girls who are part of the NGB program from Tampa Prep to the Patel Conservatory.

"It's so hard for people to process, but school always comes first," she says. "If I want to be a professional dancer, I have to start auditioning for companies in two years. You have to be really young and usually careers are pretty short, too."

But to Dixon, it's all worth it. She is driven to become a member of either the San Francisco or Boston Ballet Company. And if it means sacrificing a "normal" teenage life, so be it.

"I'm constantly battling with myself, ever since middle school, it's been like: 'do I go to a social event or do I go to ballet class? Do I study for this test or do I go to this extra rehearsal?' " she says. "That's probably the hardest part about this thing with Tampa Prep because it's a hard school and this is a hard ballet school, so I just have to balance my time."

Dixon has scored leading performances in productions including Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

"Last May, I was the 'Diamond Jewel' in Sleeping Beauty, and that was pretty cool. That was actually my second solo, but I really liked it. It was really fun," she says. "But really, that wasn't as big as my role in The Nutcracker this year. I was the Spanish lead, and that was so much fun. I was dancing with a partner, and we were doing a bunch of dips and crazy stuff."

Like any other high-profile ballerina who repeatedly practices, conditions, auditions and performs, Dixon has dealt with overuse injuries, one of which almost ended her career.

"Over this past summer, I had a really traumatic Achilles tendon injury. I was in a cast for two weeks, and I couldn't dance for three months," Dixon says. "In the dance world, after three months, some people are like, 'might as well quit' because that's a really long time, but I went back. It was really in that break when I realized how much I really love to dance because I couldn't dance. That's really how I realized that I loved it so much."

Nothing is like ballet, Dixon says. "It's really freeing, and it's different from other sports. It's so hard to describe, but when I'm in the studio, I don't have to think about homework or chores that I have to do," she says. "I'm just free."

Before our time together ends, I ask her if she would have given any advice to her younger self as a beginning dancer.

"I would probably say to keep working hard and that I shouldn't compare myself to the older dancers because they're where they are for a reason, and I'm where I am for a reason," the teen says. "Keep working hard and don't give up."

As for what the future holds, whether it involves dancing professionally or becoming a nutritionist (she has a Pinterest filled with healthy eating tips and recipes), Dixon is ready.