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Modesto teen realizing his dream while dancing, learning with Houston ballet


By Kerry McCray
The Modesto Bee
Photograph by Adam Golub
January 21, 2010


By the time Zach Prentice was in fourth grade, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life: dance ballet.

Zach’s interest in dance started when he saw Modesto’s ballet company, Central West, perform “The Nutcracker” on a school field trip. “He looked at me and said, ‘I want to do that someday,’ ” Zach’s mom, Julie Prentice, said.

Zach went on to dance with the Modesto company he idolized, and recently, at age 16, moved to Houston to take part in the second company of the Houston Ballet, a training ground for young dancers wanting to turn pro.

Zach, now 17, is one of the second company’s youngest members. He takes dance classes during the day and rehearses in the afternoon and into the night. He takes high school classes online and hopes to graduate by the end of the year.

It’s grueling, but the hard work inches Zach closer to his goal of becoming a professional ballet dancer. “There are times when you feel like you just want to give up,” Zach said, “but you just have to push yourself through it.”

Zach was born in Modesto, moved to Sonora, then returned to Modesto, where his mother home-schooled him and his brother, Adam.

His home-school group, Hart-Ransom Charter School, sponsored the field trip to the ballet and offered ballet classes for students. Zach signed up and fell in love.

He performed in his first “Nutcracker” with Steps Dance Arts Center when he was 10 years old. Yes, he was nervous. “But I learned that every time I get on stage, the nerves go away,” Zach said. “You feel like you’re that person.”

Zach lived for dance. But when he returned to public school in junior high, it wasn’t easy being known as the boy who did ballet. “I didn’t make many good friends in school,” he said. “You just hope to get through the day and get to dance, where everything’s better.”

By this time, Zach was performing with Central West, where Artistic Director René Daveluy could tell he was a rising star. “He already had the abilities, we could clearly see that,” Daveluy said. “We saw him grow into a most excellent dancer.”

Zach went on to dance major roles in Central West productions, including “Peter and the Wolf,” “Peter Pan” and “The Nutcracker.”

Daveluy and Central West’s ballet mistress, Leslie Larson, encouraged Zach to audition for the Houston Ballet’s second company. At first, Zach’s goal was to get into the company’s summer program for students. Later, he decided to try out for the second company to gain audition experience.

His mother suspected he’d make it. The thought of Zach leaving home made her teary, but she was excited, too. “I was really praying for him,” she said. “I wanted him to live his dream.”

Zach not only made the second company, he also earned a scholarship, which pays for his ballet classes. His mother contributes about $500 a month for his room and board.

He lives in a company town house with four other male dancers. Curfew is at 9 p.m. weeknights, 10 p.m. weekends. The dancers watch what they eat; Zach’s typical dinner is a plate of pasta with chicken and vegetables.

Houston Ballet II is a small company — 16 dancers. So far, Zach has taken part in the company’s repertory performances, including “The Long and Winding Road,” set to music by The Beatles.

He also has been selected to dance minor roles in shows staged by the Houston Ballet, a group of 53 dancers performing in a space built especially for the company, the Wortham Theater.

It’s thrilling, yet intimidating. “I’ve been on stage next to dancers I’d be scared to talk to,” he said.

As far as Daveluy knows, Zach is the first dancer from Central West who has gone on to a professional ballet company. This is unusual, Daveluy said, although it is becoming a bit more common because more second companies have popped up in major cities over the years.

It doesn’t hurt that Zach is a male dancer. There are fewer men than women in ballet, Daveluy said, so talented men are constantly in demand. Still, Zach’s accomplishment is an important one, especially at such a young age, Daveluy said. “He has such talent,” he said. “Zach is an instinctual, natural mover. That, in companies, is basically gold.”

Zach sees himself dancing professionally in the near future, and hopes to continue working in the dance world — perhaps in marketing or administration — after his career on the stage ends. Most male dancers continue to dance until they are around 40 years old.

Zach’s advice to other boys who like ballet? “If it’s really what you want, you have to psych yourself up,” he said. “There are people in the world who will put you down, but you’re better than that.”


 Copyright 2010 The Modesto Bee

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