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Staying on their toes

Young dancers with big dreams audition with a talented instructor. She's tough. She tests them. She wants only the best.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2002

[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Young girls hold a pose during auditions. The classical ballet program, which has about 70 students, is open to girls and boys ages 7 through 18.
CHANNEL DISTRICT -- Sixteen little girls stood silently at the barre, bellies tight and backs straight, awaiting instruction from the grown-up ballerina.

She called for a plie. They dutifully complied.

"Up," she ordered. They rose.

"Down," she commanded. They sank.

Everyone wanted to impress Haydee Gutierrez.

The young dancers were competing for a spot in Gutierrez's classical ballet training program, a year-old school at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Its Cuba-born director is known for her high standards and tough technique.

Once, it was said, this teacher had taped shut the mouth of a girl who danced with her tongue out.

"Is it going to hurt?" asked bubbly Madeline Gillette, nearly 7, before Gutierrez checked the flexibility of her tiny legs.

"Relax," Gutierrez said. "Don't do anything."

The auditions last week summoned aspiring dancers ages 7 to 18 from across the Tampa Bay area. Dressed in pink tights and black leotards, they dreamed of making it big in tutus and toe shoes.

Haydee Gutierrez, director of the Classical Ballet Training Program, helps position feet during auditions. The program trains students for a professional career in dance.
Training under Gutierrez guaranteed a great start. She picks only the most promising pupils.

Talent alone doesn't merit her approval. To make her class, dancers must show flexibility, strength and the right physique.

"You look for a proportionate body," she said after the two-hour tryouts. "You want flexible hips, long legs and a small head."

A big head doesn't look good on stage, she explains.

She's 5 foot 2. She said her big feet give her the height to dance.

Head and foot size mattered little to auditioners at the Center Annex in the Channel District. They gripped the barre for balance, squeezed muscles until they trembled and stretched limbs as far as they could go.

The youngest ones giggled nervously.

Gutierrez pushed feet into proper position.

"Don't worry. You won't break," she told her young charges.

Outside the dance studio, anxious moms and dads read magazines to pass the time. No peeking, Gutierrez said. She needed the girls' undivided attention.

Denise Melcher contemplated the time commitment if her 11-year-old daughter, Ali, was selected. Two classes a week means two trips from Westchase to downtown -- during rush hour.

Still, she didn't seem to mind.

"I have to give her that opportunity. She's been going to her brother's baseball games for 10 years," Melcher said. "It's really her passion."

Taylor Ravenna, left, and Janelee Clements, both 11, tie up their shoes before demonstrating their skills en pointe.
Ali took up ballet at age 8 and worked up to toe shoes a few months ago. Someday, she hopes to dance in New York City.

Last week, she got one step closer. Of the 16 girls who auditioned, she was one of 11 chosen for the class. The next tryouts come up in late spring, though Gutierrez does private auditions throughout the year.

Before starting the ballet program, Gutierrez taught dance at the University of South Tampa and ran a ballet center in Tampa for several years. Most recently, she worked with the Oregon Ballet Theater.

A native of Cuba, Gutierrez said her style has paid off. Her students have trained at leading ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. Photos of them in her office add inspiration.

"I don't want to do anything halfway," she said. "If it's not the best, I won't do it."

Gutierrez, 54, said ballet helps develop the key ingredients for a successful life: a healthy mind, body and spirit. Young people learn about dedication, responsibility and hard work.

She treats them like people, not children.

Ali Melcher, 11, auditions for a spot in the Classical Ballet Training Program. At right, Jordan Harmer, 8, waits for her turn.
Fall classes began this week and continue through spring. They cost $117 to $311 a month, depending on the level. Audition is required for entry.

The program, which has about 70 students, culminates with a "Showcase" recital at the Performing Arts Center in June. This year's show filled Ferguson Hall.

Reaching that point won't be easy. Some of the dancers have years of experience. Others have never worn a ballet slipper.

Lindsay Padell, 13, started jazz and tap four years ago, but is new to ballet. She figured the teacher would be strict.

"I've seen it in the movies," she said.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

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