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A real stretch

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[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Savannah Lowery, 17, left, and Katherine Bergstrom, 18, work out at the Judith Lee Johnson School of Ballet in St. Petersburg. They are keeping in shape at the school before their return to the New York City Ballet.

By MARINA BROWN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002


Two Pinellas County teens have accomplished something that might not have been done before: making the New York City Ballet from the same dance school and at the same time.

Every year, as many as 3-million U.S. children are taking dancing lessons. By the time those young dancers reach their teens, all but about 50,000 have dropped out, estimates Vickie Sheer, executive director of Dance Educators of America.

Only a determined minority will hang in to seek a comparative handful of professional dance jobs.

Consider this: of the 2,000 girls who this year auditioned for the New York City Ballet school's summer program, only a half-dozen are expected to join the company.

Yet two Pinellas County teens, who got their start at the same St. Petersburg ballet school, this summer won full contracts with NYCB, among the world's most prestigious ballet companies.

"I can't remember if we've ever had two girls from the same school actually entering the NYCB at the same time," said Amy Bordy, public relations director of the company's School of American Ballet.

But Katherine Bergstrom, 18, and Savannah Lowery, 17, who as children studied together at the Judith Lee Johnson School of Ballet, faced far more than daunting statistics on their road to one of the world's top companies. Brutal competition, numbing schedules, family sacrifices, loneliness, whispered prayers to avoid injuries, have marked the last decade of their lives.

A challenge beyond ballet

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Katherine Bergstrom concentrates at the barre. Besides the competition, she had to overcome scoliosis.

Katie Bergstrom looks like a moving Modigliani: Oval face, creamy complexion dusted with freckles, expression serious and reserved. But while she appears delicate, she has learned to be tough.

By the time she was 10, Katie's teachers noticed she was special. Her body was nearly perfectly proportioned for ballet, and her love of movement was "thrilling to watch" says her teacher at the time, Judith Lee Johnson. At 12, Katie went to the North Carolina Dance Theatre's Chatauqua summer program, where she studied for three summers.

But even as dance was becoming the most important thing in her life, she learned she had scoliosis, a condition that twists and can deform the spine.

With Katie's 35-degree curvature, doctors wanted to operate on the 14-year-old. They made this determination just as Katie was preparing for her first summer at the School of American Ballet, NYCB's feeder institution, where she was headed with her 13-year-old friend Savannah.

Katie and her parents decided to take a wait-and-see approach, hoping she could avoid surgery. She went to New York.

Competition breeds closeness

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Savannah Lowery works on a pirouette last week in class at the Judith Lee Johnson School of Ballet.

When Savannah Lowery enters the room, you can almost feel the air change. While her friend is reserved, Savannah is as animated as a puppy. With her tanned skin and blond hair, she looks like the athlete she is.

"I guess I like everything physical," says Savannah. She thinks a moment and adds: "But I like everything mental, too."

Savannah began ballet at 3; later she added diving, gymnastics, piano and track. But even as she was winning state gymnastics medals, she had decided that she enjoyed ballet more.

Her parents, physicians Lisa and David Lowery, have always supported her decision. "We all are very outgoing, love to compete and are incredibly close," says Savannah, whose 15-year-old sister Chloe has sung professionally.

While Katie and Savannah's careers seemed to be following a similar path, the early months in New York brought them closer than they had been at their St. Petersburg studio.

"Everything was so much more competitive," says Katie. "Before, it was only fun, now we were constantly being looked at and critiqued -- it never stopped."

Most summer students were not invited to stay for the fall term. But Katie, who was starting her sophomore year at Seminole High School and Savannah, a rising freshman who'd just finished eighth grade at Northside Christian School, were among the handful who stayed.

Katie was "thrilled and overwhelmed," she said. So was her mom, Sandy Lazar-Bergstrom, a nurse at Palms of Pasadena Hospital.

"We've always told Katie that if she ever wanted to stop dancing, we'd support her, but if she wanted to go for it, we'd make every sacrifice," said Lazar-Bergstrom, whose husband is general manager of an auto parts store. Between room and board, transportation, and their eventual decision to enroll Katie in New York's Professional Children's School, where scheduling around dance classes was much easier, the Bergstroms spent about $35,000 a year. Katie's scholarship covered only school tuition.

"Life savings, no vacations . . . but the hardest part was that her face wasn't there for me to look at. I cried for two months when she went away," says Lazar-Bergstrom.

The first six months away from home "were the hardest," Savannah says. "I was 14 and we had so much independence thrown at us, and then sometimes people were mean. There's quite a bit of sniping when everybody wants to become an apprentice." The apprentice level is the next stage in the culling; the step after that is to enter the company.

Every day, as the girls stood at the barre and sweated through class, each compared herself to the thinnest, the strongest, the one the company directors were noticing at the moment. Some girls wilted under the pressure; others grew more determined.

Savannah was thriving, even off the dance floor. "The Professional Children's School seemed to like to push me," she says. "I've always loved math and science and my straight A's are really important to me -- even if I did have to stay up all night doing homework."

If not for dancing, she might, she muses, have followed her parents into medicine. But company officials were watching Savannah and liked what they saw.

Near the end of Katie Bergstrom's junior year, she was called aside by one of the directors.

Instead of the hoped-for invitation to apprenticeship, Katie was told she should start auditioning for other companies. She knew what those words meant. She could barely speak.

A break from New York

At the end of the year, both girls returned to Florida to study at the Miami City Ballet School with Edward Villella. Katie still loved dance, but the NYCB directors' words troubled her deeply.

"I don't know how she got through that period," says her mother. "To feel so rejected, but to keep on doing it -- I just think she's very courageous."

But the time away from New York was just the boost her confidence -- and her dancing -- needed.

"For one thing, Eddie Villella just loves her," says Johnson, her former teacher.

When fall came, Katie chose to return to New York, but she went with a new attitude. She was dancing for herself, for the joy of it again, not to impress anyone.
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In St. Petersburg, another class winds down. Savannah, left, and Katie’s early months in New York brought them closer.

Within a month of her return, she and Savannah had both been appointed apprentices. They danced in 48 performances of The Nutcracker during the holiday season.

At the spring 2002 apprentice workshop, a kind of showcase for up-and-coming talent, Savannah had a leading role, while Katie was a soloist, a turn that won her a glowing mention in the New York Times.

Katie's scoliosis, the quiet worry in the back of her mind, was pronounced nonprogressive in March and she was officially discharged from the care of Shriner's Hospital, which had been monitoring her condition. She graduated from high school.

Both Katie and Savannah, who'll be a high school senior, plan on taking courses at Fordham University next year; English for Katie and chemistry for Savannah.

They spent much of the summer dancing as apprentices in this summer's NYCB season at Saratoga, N.Y.

There, they discovered that all the years of work and sacrifice had paid off in the biggest way. The revelation that they had finally made it into the company came, however, not with a bang but with a ho-hum.

Savannah rolls her eyes as she recalls, and Katie makes a deep sigh. "Someone wandered into an office, saw this brochure, thumbed to the back and there we were: Savannah Lowery and Katherine Bergstrom -- full members of the New York City Ballet."

Both girls laugh and shake their heads.

Later that evening, as the light fades into a hot Florida summer night, the two girls and a few others are in Johnson's studio. They're on a vacation, visiting their families, but for professional dancers there's no such thing as taking a break.

They almost look like any other teenagers, casually slouched against the barre. But as the music begins, as their legs extend and torsos arch, the young women transform. All at once, they are remote and beautiful, intent on their art.

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