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By Barbara Route
Brandon News and Tribune
Photographs by Monica Estrada
June 13, 2012

Alex Estrada was a baseball player who got dragged along to his sister’s ballet classes.

With Alex’s dad deployed in Iraq, his mom toted her four children to all of their extracurricular activities. Alex, then 8 years old, would wait with his mother in the studio at The Dance Center — a private studio at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and John Moore Road — while his younger sister Shaelynn danced.

He watched the advanced ballet classes and eventually joined a boys’ sports jazz class. The teacher, a professional dancer with the Sarasota Ballet, showed him the steps and athletic ballet moves he was working on.

Within four months, the tall and athletic boy from Riverview — who already had junior-high school baseball coaches asking where he was playing ball the following year — begged to take ballet lessons, said his mother, Monica Estrada.

At first, baseball and ballet coexisted in Alex’s life.

“After a year of dance lessons, Alex could hit the baseball like a beast, because his stretch, athleticism and strength increased so much,” his mom said. “He could run faster, hit farther and became almost cat-like.”

Alex discovered a love of dance and started training at The Dance Center with his sister, who began classes there eight years ago. He kept playing baseball, too – a mark of pride for his father, Army Reserve Capt. Jesse Estrada.

Eventually, though, he felt pressured to make a choice.

His dance teachers wanted him to pursue dance. His coaches and teammates wanted him to give his all to baseball.

“Being 10 years old, doing ballet and baseball, I was getting picked on, and sometimes we got into little fights on the team,” Alex said. “Not anything bad or serious.

“As I progressed in ballet and baseball, my baseball got a whole lot better, once I started really learning how to jump and stuff. My coach said one time, ‘I ought to make everybody on the team do ballet, because you’ve improved so much.’ “

Once his teammates saw the girls he got to dance with, they came around, too.

“There was one kid whose jaw nearly hit the floor when he found out.”

Another pressure was Alex’s dad.

“His father was really hoping he’d stick with baseball, but the more he saw him dance, the more he was OK with his being a dancer,” Alex’s mom said. “Every time he came home [from a deployment], he was shocked by what Alex and Shaelynn could do. Soon he was saying, ‘OK. Maybe more boys should be in dance. Maybe more boys should take ballet.’ “

A year into dancing, and after five years of playing baseball, Alex traded in his cleats for ballet shoes.

Visualizing his future helped Alex choose ballet.

“With baseball, everything’s going to stay the same,” said Alex, now 15. “It’s always going to be, like, a home run, an RBI, you run to the next base, catch another ball, run the ball, whatever.

“In ballet, you progress and do different things. You can explore different areas in dance; you don’t just have to stick to doing the same thing over and over for years on end. You get to act and you get to dance on the stage with people you know and in front of an audience.”

These days, Alex and Shaelynn, 12, each dedicate about 25 hours a week to dancing.

“Both these students are very talented, and both have passion,” said Alice Holden Bock, The Dance Center’s artistic director. “Alex is always doing more, dancing longer. Without the passion, a dancer won’t get anywhere.”

This summer, Alex and Shaelynn’s passion for ballet is taking them to study with top-level dancers and instructors.

Alex won a full scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, where he will take part in an eight-week intensive classical ballet workshop. He turned down a full scholarship with the Orlando Ballet to study at Joffrey. After New York, Alex will participate in a three-week summer program at the Carreño Festival in Sarasota – all expenses paid.

Shaelynn has partial scholarships for summer intensives at the Orlando Ballet School and the Carreño Festival.

Alex’s sister almost joined him in New York this summer. The Ajkun Ballet Theatre offered her a scholarship for a competitive summer session – she was one of 20 invited out of 2,000 candidates. But the family turned down the offer because the program is geared toward older dancers.

The Estradas’ dancing caught the eye of scouts for professional companies at the 2012 Youth America Grand Prix semifinals in Tampa and the 2012 American Dance Competition in Orlando. Both finished in the Top 12 of their divisions in Tampa, and Shaelynn finished in the Top 15 in Orlando.

Shaelynn is looking forward to spending the summer with other ballet students and learning from notable dancers such as Joseph Gatti, a principal with the Boston Ballet. “He’s really good,” she said.

Recently, Alex and Shaelynn began working together on a “Don Quixote” ballet pas de deux – a dance for two people. The routine incorporates promenades, lifts and jumps and requires each to rely on the other’s strength and skill.

“We fight at home sometimes,” Shaelynn said. “But in the studio, I can always trust him.”

Alex and Shaelynn aspire to dance professionally and plan to postpone college.

“Your best dance years are in your 20s,” Alex said. “I don’t want to waste them in college. I’ll dance first and then go to school.”

Alex’s peers still tease him a bit about wearing tights and dancing, but he shrugs it off. He doesn’t have much time for friends, anyway.

“Most of the time I’m in the studio working,” he said. “This is really what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be able to dance like Carlos Acosta” – the Cuban-born dancer who is a principal guest artist for the Royal Ballet in London.

For now, though, their mom is enjoying being able to watch them dance right here at home. “I never tire of seeing [Alex and Shaelynn] dance,” she said. “I can watch them for hours.”

©2012 Media General Communications Holdings

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