Since the age of 10, Brittany Ross has been on a career path, single mindedly working toward her future. She turned 16 yesterday and is one step closer to making her dream come true and becoming a professional ballet dancer.Next week Ross will go to Portland to fulfill a five-week scholarship with the Oregon Ballet Theater and decide if she will join that company in the fall for a pre-professional apprenticeship or return to the First State Ballet Theater in Wilmington where she has trained since the age of 10 for a similar opportunity.

Either way Ross will be training full time in the fall and going to school online, rather than rejoining her Unionville High School class for her junior year. Both dance companies have offered her a year-long apprenticeship to evaluate her before committing to a professional contract. She will be part of the company, but not paid because she is under age 18.

Sherri Ross said she tried to steer her daughter toward gymnastics when she was small, but all she wanted to do was dance. When she was 2 years old, the little girl would watch the Nutcracker Ballet over and over and loved classical music. Her grandmother enrolled her in ballet classes, and that was the end of gymnastics. Already at age 10 she was a serious dancer and began training with Pasha and Kristina Kambalov at their Wilmington studio.

Until now she has danced about three hours each evening, in addition to rehearsals for performances. This past season she danced both the roles of Marie and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker. For the last several years she has competed nationally and internationally, attracting the attention of the dance world.

Since January she competed in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, the Youth America Grand Prix in New York, the American Ballet Competition in Miami and the World Ballet Competition in Orlando, Fla. Just to compete she had to audition and be accepted by a panel of judges. She was the only American female selected by the Prix de Lausanne. In total 77 dancers competed there.

For each competition the dancers are required to perform specific classical and contemporary repertoires individually, as well as participate in judged classes and workshops.

The European competition was challenging not only because of the fierce competition with dancers who dance full time, but because the stage was "raked," meaning it sloped towards the audience. Many of the young dancers had never experienced being en pointe on an angle. They only had one run-through on the stage before their big test before the panel of judges that included prominent European dance company directors and choreographers.

"But, everyone pulled through. Everyone was on their game. No one was messing around. It was so great to be with everyone who was so serious about dancing.

Ross said sometimes her nerves get the best of her. "I'm not really a competitor. I have a competitive aspect to my personality, but I get nervous competing. I'm all about performing. I'm all about it being an art form, rather than a sport."

Her mother admitted she gets "exceptionally nervous." She hopes their days of traveling to competitions are over. "Some people compete because they love to compete. But she competes just to be seen by people in the dance world, so she can get a job later."

Building on her good reputation is the young dancer's top priority. She is focusing in on her future. She described her mission as "building a bridge for myself."

The competitions are something she just has to do to get where she wants to go. Despite her nerves, she has done very well. In addition to her full scholarship to the Oregon Ballet Theater, she has won scholarships to Ballet Austin, the Washington Ballet, the Dance Conservatory of New York and won the Jamison Scholarship Award. For the last five years she has made it to the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix.

To Ross, all the hard work is worth it. "The more experienced you get on stage, the more artistic you become. You learn how to show your emotions and convey the character you're supposed to convey from the stage to the audience, which is one of the most difficult things to do as a dancer. It's not just dancing, it's also acting."

Some of her high school friends also dance ballet, but as a hobby. She said she doesn't think they understand her commitment or even the level at which she dances. While she will keep in touch with her friends, she looks forward to leaving the "distraction" of the high school social scene behind to focus fully on dance.

Sherri Ross is a far cry from being a stage mother. She is supportive, but not pushy in the least. She said if she could have chosen a passion for her daughter, it would have been gymnastics, and she certainly wouldn't choose cyber school over Unionville High School. But, she is thankful that at least ballet isn't dangerous. Her 13-year-old son David competes at a high level in gymnastics.

As if her mother didn't know what was most important, Ross said, "Dance is what I love. It's what I'd rather be doing than anything." To contact Prue Osborn, email prueosborn@gmail.com.

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