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Staying on their toes
Intensive two-week program keeps Gainesville Ballets dancers in top shape for upcoming season
Laura Graham of Flowery Branch practices a jazz routine Tuesday during an afternoon class at Brenau University. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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As instructor Lonnie Davis counted off beats, a couple dozen high school-aged ballerinas stepped, turned and pirouetted to the rhythm. Again. And again. And again.

Just as the groups of girls got the hang of it, Davis decided to tack on some new steps to the end of the routine. There were just 10 minutes left in the class, so why not?

Besides, this is the Summer Intensive program for Gainesville Ballet, a time for school-aged ballerinas to get back into shape and for dancers with the Gainesville Ballet to get back into the swing of things.

Just as the Atlanta Falcons return to training camp to prepare for the grueling year, so must these hard-working ballerinas. Students, who are usually in rehearsals or ballet classes at least four days a week during the school year, have had a break for the summer to go on vacation or - for many - take in a ballet camp in Atlanta or another state.

But now it's back to business, brushing up on the steps and getting ready for the performance of The Nutcracker later on this year.

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The students were in the dance studios at Brenau University all day for the past two weeks, said executive director Diane Callahan. The first three-hour sessions are classes, where the dancers go over movements and choreography. After a break it's into rehearsal for the winter performance of "The Nutcracker," along with repertoire pieces to be used in the company's spring show.

"The younger kids are in rehearsal for ‘The Nutcracker' already ... the littlest ones are starting now," Callahan said. "They're beginning to learn all the actual steps they'll do in ‘The Nutcracker.'"

It takes months, Callahan said, to make sure each little dancer in a bevy of girls is moving with the group as a whole.

"And to get everybody doing this at the same time, with the same arms and the same beat," Callahan said. "It's a lot of time."

Older students, many of whom remember practicing for "The Nutcracker" at age 3 or 4, are in a studio down the hall from the children. There, they memorize steps to a jazz piece as part of a class, and later in the day they go over choreography for a spring repertoire piece.

"We hurt really bad," said Hannah Patten of Gainesville. "It keeps you in shape, because even though it's not that long that we're off, you know if you get out of shape. And coming back here, it's just so much."

Patten was part of the class pulling and twisting their bodies under the instruction of Davis, a choreographer who teaches at Pebblebrook Performing Arts High School in Mableton and travels around the country teaching summer dance camps.

In a black T-shirt and gray sweatpants, Davis perched on a stool watching and critiquing the girls as they twirled by, trying to stay with the Latin beat coming from the stereo.

"I always try to teach to the highest denominator, no matter what class it is," he said after the class finished. "So I always push all my kids - just go further, go further, go further, go further ... don't get so caught up in being complacent or what they think their level is, or what they think they're capable of. I'll always try to challenge them, no matter what."

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Jessica Shilling of Gainesville, a high schooler who said she started dancing late - age 6 - said she used the earlier part of her summer to practice at other ballet camps. Her goal in expanding her personal dance repertoire?

"I wanted to get better because I wanted a bigger part in ‘The Nutcracker,'" she said. "That was my goal."

As her friends laughed, they also said there's no competition between the girls for specific parts. Rather, Patten said, the girls - many of whom have been dancing together for years at this point - will help each other out.

"We don't really have to compete for parts because you just get what you get," Patten said.

The two weeks of intensive dance training have also been helpful for Laura Graham, who just got back from working on a cruise line and for Disney World in Florida.

"So it's been four years since I've even done ballet, so I'm just getting back into the daily classes, the daily grind, and see where it goes from there," she said. "But it's just a really great opportunity to be here and to learn from so many really great people and to see young girls learn. It's just really great to work with them."

Davis said he's impressed with the level the dancers are at.

"You can tell they get good training because I can throw something like that at them," he said of the extra choreography he added at the end of class. "With a lot of people you just can't throw, ‘OK, give me a double turn and fall onto the floor,' and you just can't do that with anybody.

"So at least you know that these kids have good enough training they can handle the technical aspect of it, and they can create from there."

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