When 12-year-old Dayanara Villanueva received the email from Joffrey Ballet School’s Summer Intensive program in New York City that said “congratulations,” she had to text her dance instructor, Kelly Harris, just to be sure.
“I said, ‘Dayanara, it means you got accepted!’” Harris said.
The Atlantic City girl, who studies with Harris at Cygnus Creative Arts Centre in Egg Harbor Township, said she started jumping around. Her grandmother, who was visiting from Mexico, began to cry.
“I was so excited, because I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I made it,” she said.
The Sovereign Avenue School seventh-grader has been dancing for only three years. She was accepted to several of the school’s programs across the country, including San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. Villanueva chose New York City, where she has family and will stay in the city for a week.
The ballet school has taught famous dancers such as Misty Copeland, the first black principal ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre.
For many young dancers, the program is a stepping stone toward breaking into the professional world of dance, Harris said.
“Even if they don’t want to be a dancer, it’s an amazing experience, because they’re exposed to the top professionals in the field and receive training from them,” Harris said. “From there, they’ll get spotted by ballet companies and teachers.”
Although she’s young, Villanueva is dedicated to dance. Watching her strike a pose before practice recently at Cygnus, she stares intently ahead as she glides up onto her toes, kicking a tambourine from the ballet “La Esmeralda.”
Her mother and two younger brothers wait outside the studio.
“You don’t have to ask her to practice or try it again. She’s very self-motivated on her own,” Harris said.
Villanueva, who is soft-spoken, said she became more social through dance because she found out she had “something special.” Although Harris said she’s sometimes shy, the young dancer’s focus and passion shines through.
“She loves it so much. She’s a very sweet little girl and not at all a show-off,” Harris said. “She doesn’t act like she’s better than anybody. I actually have to pull that out of her to not look at the floor and to try to feel confident and keep her head up. Her leg is way up in the air — beautiful — and she’s hitting all the turns, but that shyness sometimes comes across in the dancing, so I tell her when she’s performing, she has to play like a character.”
Other Cygnus students were accepted and often are accepted to Joffrey and other summer programs, but those dancers tend to be older than Villanueva.
“I usually don’t send them that young, but I said, ‘You know what? I think she’s really got a shot,’” Harris said.
Villanueva, who has been dancing since she was 9, is considered a late starter in the world of classical ballet training. Many girls start at a much younger age.
That’s one reason why the school is so proud of her, said Cynthia Domino, founder and artistic director of Cygnus.
“She has only (taken lessons) twice a week, and when she started she was once a week,” she said. “So she’s only picked up twice a week the last year and a half, so she really hasn’t had that much training. Maybe three hours a week, max.”
While there are students her age who are more accomplished, because they’ve been training longer, a student like Villanueva can catch up.
“For instance, Misty Copeland started at a late age, but the concentration of classes and time she put it into it builds your body,” Domino said. “Ballet is repetition. The better the teacher, the more concentration and classes you have will excel you to wherever you want to be in ballet or dance.”
Villanueva didn’t always plan to become a ballerina. She thought about being a gymnast.
“I decided not to, because I was afraid to fall and have a serious injury, so I decided to go with dance,” she said. “When I got there, I really liked it, and I stayed there.”
Being a ballerina isn’t without its challenges.
“The hardest part about being a ballerina is that you have to maintain balance and be able to be flexible and strong, mentally and physically, so you don’t give up,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva credits her success to her teacher, Harris, for helping her push herself in dance as well as encouraging her to go to the audition for Joffrey in New York City.
“Everything I’ve done so far in dance is all thanks to my teacher. She has been really helpful to me, and she’s showed me how to do all the steps and been there for me,” she said. “Without her, I wouldn’t have gone to the audition.”
When Villanueva came to Harris three years ago, Harris put her into a class with students who had been training for a few years already.
“She had her feet going all the wrong way,” she laughed.
After class, Harris told Villanueva’s father to keep bringing her. Seeing how badly the girl wanted to be a ballerina, she said Villanueva would “figure it out.”
By the end of the first year, Harris said, she was one of the top students.
Outside of dancing, Villanueva’s favorite subject is math. She hopes to become a dancer and a doctor, because she’d like to help others.
Although she likes hanging out at the park with friends, she said, she always finishes her homework before she does anything else. Then she helps her brothers with their homework.
In New York City, she might go to Times Square, but she said she mostly hopes to make new friends and improve in dance.
“To all the girls and all the boys: If anyone tries to put you down and say you have nothing special, there is always something for you,” she said.