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By Kevin Tustin
Delco News Network
February 12, 2014

Zion Tuma hopes to someday travel the world performing (photo - Delco News Network)  2014[Delaware County, Pennsylvania, USA] – If walking down the halls of Penn Wood High School you spot Zion Tuma, you would think he was an athlete. He stands around 5’8” with a nice build that looks to be solid muscle. He looks like he would be a good wide receiver for the school’s football team. But sports, let alone football, aren’t what Tuma is using his muscles for. Instead, he is using them on the dance floor, hoisting women up as he performs ballet.

A native of Cameroon and a resident of Yeadon, the 16-year-old junior is currently a ballet student at the Philadelphia Dance Academy in Old City. Tuma, an actor who previously studied hip-hop and gymnastics, said ballet gives him an adrenaline rush.
“Every performance is different,” he said, “and that’s what really catches my eye about it.”

While some students could have up to 10 years, or more, of training in classic ballet at his age, Tuma has only been studying it for a year. Ballet is one of the most discipline-stricken performing arts, for men or women, in the world, requiring not only a well-toned physique and strength, but the ability to master various techniques and hours of training every week, but it’s a goal the self-proclaimed narcissist is willing to tackle.

“Obtaining this unattainable goal of perfection draws me in more. Sometimes I feel like I want to quit, but those are the days where we learn the most and where we actually figure out what I want,” said Tuma.

Lori Lahnemann, director of the Philadelphia Dance Academy, said it’s not uncommon for teenage boys to come to her studio unsure about ballet, but Tuma was motivated and eager to learn. “He shows the most enthusiasm and determination,” said Lahnemann. “I feel that he’s genuinely interested and it’s driven through him. He’s self-driven and that’s nice to see.”

Lahnemann has worked with Tuma over the past year, first in a boys only scholarship class, and then bumping him up to the pre-professional courses. She was instrumental in getting him into the summer program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB), and is currently helping him with the application for him to study there next school year.

“We know through our own experience that it will supplement the training. It’ll be challenging, really different because now he’s going back and forth with family and school. There it’ll be easier to manage,” she said.

Currently, Tuma studies at the academy a few days of the work week for two-and-a-half hours each time and another five on Saturday, but balancing school work and training is one of the things you learn as a ballet student. “You learn a lot of discipline, and you learn how to go through life because it teaches you about time management and how you should do what you do, or (knowing) you have to do something in a certain amount of time,” he said.

Starting later in life, Tuma said the time that he has to dedicate to ballet in the prime of his high school career doesn’t faze him, as he has already had a “kid life.”

Athletes and musicians are everywhere in school, but being a male ballet dancer in a non-performing arts school is certainly a needle in the haystack, and it wasn’t until a colleague told social studies teacher Joy Schwartz did she even know there was a ballet student at the school.

Schwartz, whose two daughters study ballet and claims to be part of a “ballet obsessed” family, met Tuma in November when teacher Debbie Scoleri mentioned he was performing in “The Nutcracker.” It was an instant connection from the start. He and I hit it off right away because he is equally ballet obsessed and very eager for opportunities to learn, train, perform, and network in the ballet world,” she said.

Knowing the road to become a professional dance is a long one, Schwartz said even with only one year of training Tuma, “dances like he has been training for several years. I was very impressed by how far he has progressed in such a short time.”

She added that Tuma has a passion for ballet that helps push him through in a learning environment where being a ballet dancer could promote bullying. “To most people I feel like they think being a male ballerina is girly, you’re considered gay,” said Tuma about the stigma, “which is not really what it is.”

“If young people had any idea how strong and fit male dancers need to become, they would have more respect for the art. Lifting and partnering female dancers are a test of any man’s strength,” said Schwartz.

Tuma will definitely be testing his strength if accepted into CPYB next school year, considering one week there last summer was the “most intensive pain I’ve ever felt.”

“I got the most technical training there, and I’ve got so much better in that one week. In a year that would be extraordinary, especially for someone that has just started,” he said.

Noting he has come a long way in one year, Lahnemann stressed the importance of Tuma sharpening his technique. “I hope that he can work on his technique and that he can grow artistically, and I don’t think that gets developed as much as it should. If he becomes proficient in technique he can branch out into other dance.”

Tuma hopes to branch out after high school by attend college in a city with a known company, but studying physical therapy, not dance. “I want to go big. I want to see the world and dance lets you because thanks to different companies around the world you can there and see what they have for you, or see what you can offer them.”

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