Portland Ballet's Career Track program includes young dancers from West Linn, Lake Oswego
While other middle schoolers take notes in science class or munch on chicken strips in the cafeteria, Kyra Yannotta and Elliana Kirk pull on black leotards and lace up their pale pink slippers.
The girls may be just 12 and 13, but they know what they want to do with their lives — it's something they already do 25-30 hours a week.
"Dancing makes me a better person, mentally and physically," Kyra says. "There's just something about it that makes me feel very calm and happy."
She and Elliana are two of the youngest members of The Portland Ballet's Career Track program, made up of 10 pre-professional dancers. They'll showcase their skills in a Studio Company Performance this weekend at the company's studio.
The studio's Marketing and Public Relations Manager, Laura Grimes, says the students enroll in homeschool or online school programs to accommodate the busy dancing schedule.
"These are like the stars of tomorrow," she says. "They sacrifice a lot."
For Elliana, that meant moving with her family to Lake Oswego last summer after the dance academy near their Rathdrum, Idaho, home closed. She also enrolled in eighth grade at Calvary Online School.
Kyra, who lives in West Linn, is taking her seventh-grade classes online through Clackamas Web Academy.
This is both girls' first year in the career track program, and they say the variety of instructors have helped them make huge strides in their skills.
"They pay attention to small details and really try to help you become a better dancer," Kyra says.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's definitely all worth it," Elliana adds. "You go home at the end of the day and you're really tired, but then you wake up and you're ready to take on the next challenge."
They'll both spend several weeks of their summer at an intensive program at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, where they'll continue dancing for hours each day and will have options to take elective classes on the aspects of dance that most interest them.
The girls both hope to one day dance professionally. Elliana says she would like to become a principal dancer in a company, and later pursue a career as a veterinarian or equine specialist to serve her other passion — horses and horseback riding. Kyra says that after her own professional dance career, she might like to open a school to pass on the skills she's learned.
The Portland Ballet's Co-Artistic Director, Anne Mueller, was brought on staff in June 2015 to help launch the career track program. She says that for dancers who want to turn professional, it's becoming increasingly important to take part in a program like this one. Dancers who only come to after-school sessions can't devote as much time to their skills, and they can end up practicing late into the night or suffering more injuries.
"With ballet, the more you do it, the better you get," Mueller says. "For us to be able to use their better daytime energy to be able to train them on a schedule that matches a professional environment, it just makes them that much more ready" for the professional world, she says.
The upcoming show, which features neo-classical, classical, contemporary and highly contemporary pieces, is one of several performances that the career-track dancers take part in each year. Mueller says she's looking forward to seeing the group carry out a variety of styles.
"It's incredibly inspiring and impressive to see young people with such a high level of focus, passion, self-discipline and confidence," she says.
"I think people will be impressed when they see them perform," she says. "They will not be thinking about the fact that these dancers are so young."