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In training Snyder student travels long road to pursue dream of becoming professional ballet dancer

In Snyder, 18-year-old Larissa Kogut's bedroom is filled with memorabilia from her years of ballet dancing. Pictures of her favorite professional ballerinas cover her walls. Leotards and tights fill her dresser drawers and elaborate costumes hang in her open closet. Dozens of worn-out pointe shoes cascade onto her bedroom floor from a pile in the corner.

Beginning at age 11, Larissa's love of ballet and obvious talent has taken her from local ballet schools to leaving Amherst High School after sophomore year to live, study and train full time at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto.

"I started ballet because I love music and being able to express myself through movement," Kogut said.

Her passion for ballet was soon noticed by one of her dance teachers, who suggested she take more advanced classes at Classical Ballet of Western New York. There, Kogut began dancing en pointe, a form of ballet where dancers arch their feet forward and dance on their toes in special pointe shoes.

She then moved on to daily ballet classes at Lockport City Ballet, doing her homework during the 30-minute drive to the studio and back. Soon, her teachers suggested she audition for intensive ballet summer programs to improve her technique.

At 13, Kogut attended her first summer program, the New York State Summer School for the Arts program at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. She lived for a month in dorms with other dance students and attended classes taught by dancers from New York City Ballet. She also was exposed to different performances, including her favorite, "Glass Piece," a contemporary ballet by Jerome Robbins. The experience made her realize, "I wanted to pursue ballet seriously," Kogut says.

She returned to Lockport City Ballet, where she landed lead roles, dancing the Snow Queen in "The Nutcracker" in 2006 and the lead in "Paquita" in the spring.

"As a ballet student, you feel that practicing is all you do, but once you're onstage, all your hard work pays off and you feel free," Kogut said.

Kogut auditioned for summer programs the following year and enrolled in the summer intensive program of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. At 14, Kogut moved to Seattle and spent the summer dancing with girls and boys from around the country.

"This program was much different than Saratoga," Kogut said. "We were living in a much bigger area, and we had more freedom to explore the city."

After returning to Buffalo, Kogut starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Lockport City Ballet's "The Nutcracker." She was accepted into Toronto's National Ballet School summer program, which served as a monthlong audition to attend Canada's National Ballet School as a full-time student.

"I was ready to move on from dancing in Buffalo," said Kogut. "The National Ballet School had so much to offer me both academically and dance-wise."

At the end of that summer, Kogut learned she had been accepted into the prestigious school.

"I was so excited to be accepted because I knew it was the next step toward becoming a professional ballet dancer," said Kogut.

The fall of Kogut's junior year, she said goodbye to Amherst High School and officially enrolled as an international student at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto.

"I moved to Toronto and lived in the dorms with other students from all over the world," said Kogut. There were only 23 other students in Kogut's class at the ballet school, much different than her class size of hundreds at Amherst High.

Kogut roomed with two other girls in a residence hall behind the school. Breakfast was served in the school cafeteria every morning and students had to be in their uniforms and in class by 8:30 a.m. She attended academic classes, including English, math, science and world issues, as well as history of ballet, writer's craft, art and music until 2:30 p.m.

"School in Canada was much different than at Amherst. The classes were much smaller, and I was given much more individual attention," said Kogut.

After the academic school day ended and on Saturdays, all students took ballet classes based on their strengths and weaknesses.

"Everyone at the school had a tremendous amount of ability, talent and artistry," noted Kogut. Ballet classes lasted about two hours, and included modern dance, pointe and rehearsals for upcoming shows.

"I go through about six pairs of pointe shoes per month," Kogut said, "so I'm always sewing ribbons and elastics on my shoes for class."

At 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, students went to dinner, then back to their residence halls to shower, rest and finish homework.

On weekends, "We had a lot of freedom to explore Toronto," Kogut said. "As long as we signed in and out and followed the curfew rules, we could go shopping, to the movies, out to dinner, or to shows. There are a lot of culturally diverse neighborhoods in the city, so it was really eye-opening to be able to experience what each neighborhood had to offer," Kogut said.

"I loved the school. There was always someone around, or something to do. Everyone really understood each other, too, because we were all at school doing the same thing. We were like a big family," said Kogut.

Kogut attended Canada's National Ballet School for her junior and senior years of high school and graduated in June with a Canadian high school diploma. A ceremony for the 24 students was followed by a dinner/dance for family and friends.

"There were a lot of tears but a lot of laughter. We all knew this was the last night we would be spending together as a class. I was so proud to see my classmates get their diplomas and walk across the stage. They all mean so much to me," said Kogut.

Kogut spent this summer in Seattle at another Pacific Northwest summer intensive program. She is now back at Toronto's National Ballet School, living in an apartment and preparing for her future as a professional ballet dancer.

"I ultimately want to be a ballet dancer with a company," said Kogut. "My dream would be to dance for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle or the Miami City Ballet someday." She will soon start auditioning for professional ballet companies.

"My family has always supported my dreams of dancing ballet, both for fun and now professionally. I'm so grateful to them and to all the teachers who have inspired me along the way."

Julia Birkinbine is a senior at Williamsville North.

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