Young Dancer Points to the Top

 Budding ballerina and Falls Church resident Zarina Stahnke has it made. She made her debut in the star role of Clara in the Center Dance Company’s production of “The Nutcracker” two years ago and she just wrapped up a five-week summer program in D.C. with the School of American Ballet. Ten dancers out of a pool of 210 from that program were selected to attend the premier ballet school in New York. Guess who’s one of the 10?

Just 14 years old, Stahnke will be packing her bags for the Big Apple. The School of American Ballet, revered as one of the best dance academies in the country, is the official school for the New York City Ballet Company, Stahnke’s dream job when she finishes school at 18.

“I’m extremely excited. I mean, I’m sort of scared, because the teachers are really hard,” she said.

But Stahnke doesn’t think she’ll be homesick, in large part due to the support system that will develop from the school’s dorms. Those happen to be housed above the studio, which also happens to neighbor both the Juilliard School and the Lincoln Center. During her time in New York, she'll have free nightly ballet tickets to the latter.

Stahnke, who started dance classes at the age of four, follows in her mother’s footsteps, who herself was a dancer for the Salt Lake City-based dance company Ballet West for six years.

“I always knew I wanted to dance,” the younger Stahnke said. “When I was little, I would always dance around the kitchen, and I always thought it was fun. It wasn’t until two three years ago I finally realized it’s a lot, a lot of hard work.”

Stahnke’s first ordeal came when she started dancing in point shoes when she was 11.

“I had a really bad pair of point shoes that didn’t fit me very well,” she said. “It was sort of painful.” To ease the pain, she put lamb’s wool in the toes of her slippers. It was only later that she realized she was doing things wrong.

“Your body gets into this pattern, and then you realize it’s not right, so you have to get out of that habit.”

Only a year later, she landed the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker” with the Center Dance Company, the resident group for the Arlington Center for Dance, where she currently studies. As just her second show dancing with point shoes, the six-hour-long weekend rehearsals were initially rough.

“For someone who’s only been on point before for a year, that’s a lot,” she said. “That was really painful, but you get used to it. You build calluses … and your feet get used to it.”

“The Nutcracker” helped Stahnke to build up her strength as a dancer in other ways as well.

“That was really exciting because I was on stage basically the whole time, and it gave me an opportunity to work on my acting and to project myself on stage,” she said. “Being in dance class and being on stage are very different, so you really have to communicate with the audience and relate to them.”

Despite her busy dance schedule, Stahnke has still been able to find time to keep up with her studies. When she attended Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, she would miss school when she had late dress rehearsals the night before.

“You don’t have time to do any homework,” she said. “I didn’t end up getting to bed until 1 [a.m.] and I was exhausted.”

While she never really got behind, she decided homeschooling would be a better option.

“In homeschooling you can explore more — you learn a lot about yourself, like how you work,” she said. “It took me the entire year to figure out how to get myself to stay focused the whole entire day.”

In terms of the traditional school environment: “I really don’t miss it: I like learning, I like being taught, but [school] seemed like a completely different world than where I was in,” Stahnke explained. “Because in ballet you have so much discipline, you feel like you’re a couple years ahead of everyone, and it was just … socially tough.”

While at the School of American Ballet, Stahnke will be attending the nearby Professional Children’s School, which accommodates the demanding schedules of children in the performing arts, as well as young novelists and Hollywood actors.

“I know academics are very, very important because you can’t dance your whole life. You have to have a second choice.”

This summer, Stahnke has been keeping busy with a workshop with famed ballerina Suzanne Farrell, in addition to the School of American Ballet’s program.

“It’s amazing to just be the same room as her,” she said. “She’s probably the most famous dancer of her time.”

Held in the Kennedy Center, Stahnke participates in two technique classes per day.

“They’re very difficult, so by the end of the day I just feel like I’m going to fall asleep.”

Not to worry, as once the program ends, Stahnke will get her time to rest for a few weeks before leaving her home in Falls Church for New York. For her new schools, Stahnke is only looking ahead.

“You feel comfortable right when you walk in.”