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Makani Yerg, 12, participates with other boys in the master class on modern dance on the VMA stage in Providence (photo by Mary Murphy) 2014

By Barbra Polichetti
The Providence Journal
February 9, 2014

[Providence, Rhode Island, USA] – In the darkened interior of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the blocks inside the toes of deceptively soft-looking ballet slippers made a repetitive thudding noise on the stage.

Over and over again, young dancers lifted willowy arms and raised themselves en pointe under the watchful eye of Charles Askegard, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. The Sunday afternoon workshop was one of several that ended a weekend of ballet competition and dance classes as Youth America Grand Prix held its regional semifinals in Rhode Island.

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The Youth America Grand Prix is considered the largest student ballet scholarship competition in the world, awarding more than $250,000 a year in scholarships that send young dancers to leading schools and dance companies to continue their training.

Makani Yerg, 12, of Rockville, Md., participates in the master class in modern dance (photo by Mary Murphy) 2014About 350 dancers, ages 9 to 19, from throughout the Northeast showed up for the weekend event in Providence, which selected competitors to continue on to the finals in New York in April. Other regional semifinal events are being held across the country as well as in other countries, including Mexico, Japan and Belgium.

“This is just a great opportunity,” said Maureen Reed, of Easton, Pa., as she waited with her husband to watch their daughter, Colleen, take part in Askegard’s workshop. They were also waiting for the afternoon’s awards ceremony, which would tell them if Colleen, 18, would be competing in New York.

For the Reed family, it was a weekend of possibilities, and it was the same for Katya Strelnikova, artistic director of a small ballet company in New Jersey. A former soloist with the Moscow Ballet, Strelnikova said that Grand Prix competition is a place where dreams come true for some young dancers. And it also gives them wonderful performance experience and a chance to train with masters.

A dancer since the age of 5, Strelnikova, who was born in Russia, said she told her students to enjoy their competition performances and then pay attention to every detail of the workshops. “I said don’t worry about standing out in class,” she said. “I told them to be like a sponge.”

Strelnikova is artistic director of the Ballet Classique dance company, which is affiliated with a dance school in Middletown, N.J. She said that only a special few will find their way into the spotlight in the disciplined, competitive world of ballet. “They are going to have to reach,” she said, recalling her schooling in Russia. “They are going to have to have a certain talent … and they are going to have to work really hard.”

She said that her students had a great experience in Providence, and that being on the stage of Veterans Auditorium had given the young dancers a taste of performing like professionals.

And although Strelnikova was seated more than a dozen rows back from the stage, it didn’t mean she could relax. “Ballet is a passion,” Strelnikova said. “And sometimes, watching your dancers you find that you are squeezing your own body and toes — you want to help them that much.”

© 2014 The Providence Journal Co

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