WILKES-BARRE — Watch 13-year-old Maddie Dewees taking ballet class in the Conservatory at Wilkes University, and it’s hard to believe she once was “such a little tomboy, crashing her electric car into the garage.”
At least, that’s how her grandmother, Marge Dewees, of Dallas, remembers Maddie at age 3 — when her family enrolled her in dance hoping she would develop some feminine grace.
At the time, no one noticed a particular aptitude for ballet, Marge said.
But, 10 years later, lots of people are noticing Maddie’s potential, including judges at the acclaimed School of American Ballet in New York City, who recently offered her a scholarship to a five-week summer program.
“She needs to go. It’s time,” said dance instructor Karla Kovatch who also left Northeastern Pennsylvania for advanced training as a young teen before dancing 11 seasons with the Boston Ballet and eventually returning to this area.
Kovatch and Mary Kathryn Siejak, who both mentor Maddie at Ballet Northeast and the Conservatory at Wilkes University, seem to be as excited as Maddie is about her opportunity at the School of American Ballet, which describes its faculty as carrying on “the legacy of renowned choreographer, teacher and ballet master George Balanchine” and its students as learning “to dance as never before —bigger, bolder, faster and with a heightened sense of musicality.”
Being admitted to that program is an honor, but not a chance to rest on your laurels.
That’s fine with Maddie. She’s no stranger to working hard, as she proved during six hours of ballet class and rehearsals on a recent Saturday. She takes classes five days a week, for at least 90 minutes, but Saturday is the longest day.
Fortified with a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and fruit, she arrived early for her 11 a.m. class with Kovatch which started, as ballet classes all around the world tend to do, with a plié in first position.
That means every dancer placed her heels together, toes and thighs turned out toward the right and left, while she bent and straightened her knees.
It’s a simple beginning, a warm-up for better things to come.
“My favorite part is the grand allegro,” Maddie said, referring to the bigger, faster movements that will come 90 minutes later, when she and other dancers will travel, leaping, from one end of the studio to the other.
Building up to that grande finale of the class, the dancers follow Kovatch’s lead through a series of traditional exercises.
Listen to the names and you’ll see why lots of ballerinas study French — something Maddie said she’d like to do at her first opportunity.
After a combination devoted to the plié, which translates to “bend,” the dancers work on tendu, which means “stretch,” and involves bringing a pointed foot to the front, side and back.
By 11:30 a.m. the group has worked on many combinations, from the rond de jambe, in which their pointed toes draw a circle (rond) around the leg (jambe) to the pirouette, in which they spin on one supporting leg.
When it comes time for to stretch their arms and upper bodies one way while they extend a leg in the opposite direction, Kovatch offers tips to a few dancers who seem hesitant about leaning back. “Don’t be afraid. Just do it. Start with the top of your head.”
Maddie does not seem afraid — not of leaning backward, not of going to New York, not of pursuing a dance career.
She loves this world of dance, including the chance to perform. Her recent roles with Ballet Northeast included “lead marzipan” in the 2015 production of “The Nutcracker” and the plum role of Clara in 2014. “When you’re growing up, everyone wants to be Clara,” she said. Making the role extra special for Maddie was the fact she was wearing the exact Clara costume her aunt, Leslie Dewees, had worn about 15 years earlier.
“That’s how old the costumes are,” Maddie said with a grin.
When her first class of the day ended, she immediately prepared for a second class which would be similar but danced in the stiff pink pointe shoes that allow a dancer to rise to the tips of her toes. Maddie was breaking in a new pair, not only by wearing them but by whacking them against a hard surface before she put them on.
They’d probably last two weeks before she wore them out, she estimated.
After the pointe class would come several hours of rehearsal for the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition set for Feb. 5-7 in Pittsburgh. Maddie expects to be there, representing Ballet Northeast along with Danielle Gendler, who recently appeared as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker,” and Rachael Wooditch, who is eager to compete despite recently injuring her arm.
Do the dedicated young dancers have time to just be kids? It seems they do, if you listen to them chatter between classes about wanting a second set of piercings in their ears. Several of them would like that; but their parents are not in favor. Maddie is among that group. “My dad said no.”