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Taking the next step
After many summer camp sessions, Gemma Freitas will move on to the famed Juilliard School

Their once pretty pink satin ribbons are now tattered and worn. Nearly 100 pairs of them were stuffed in a garbage bag sitting in the back of a closet until a few months ago.

"There were too many and not enough space," Gemma Freitas said of her beat up ballet shoes.

Freitas goes through two to three pairs of pointe shoes a month, stepping and pressing their delicate material across a wooden floor with each pirouette, arabesque, and rond de jambe.

Her shoes have danced thousands of hours in the American Academy of Ballet studio in Williamsville, performed in countless recitals, stepped into camps each summer, and will now find a home at Juilliard, a performing arts conservatory in New York City that is arguably the most prestigious dance school in the country.

Freitas, 17, was one of 26 applicants (13 males and 13 females) that Juilliard accepted for enrollment in the upcoming fall semester. A total of 563 applied.

For the soon-to-be Clarence High School graduate, summer camps were the stepping stones to success.

cc,10p2 cf,mil,9,9.5,9 Since Freitas began dancing at two years old, she has attended some 25 summer camps and workshops, working her way up from youth recitals to elite-level training programs like the one at the Chautauqua Institution, which is taught by French ballet dancer and former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. The camp accepts 22 students -- out of nearly 1,000 applicants.

But while Freitas has traveled as far as Massachusetts to perfect her dancing, some of the best training she received was at her home studio, the American Academy of Ballet, which is home to more than 600 local dancers.

"I came to the American Academy of Ballet when I was 12," said Freitas. "I've actually done their summer program every year since I've been here. It really helps develop you as a dancer and a person because not only do you take ballet and pointe, you also get to take jazz and modern and choreography classes and [the director] brings in different teachers from different schools so you get to be exposed to that."

American Academy of Ballet director Maris Battaglia, who is also the associate director of the Chautauqua Institution dance program, brings in an impressive lineup of instructors to lead her summer camps.

The Academy's six-week mini-intensive camps from June 27 to Aug. 5 are taught by Jon Lehrer, former associate director of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. The two-week-long all-day camp beginning on Aug. 15 features lessons from current NYC ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht, Canada's National Ballet School instructor Ilze Titova and also American Academy of Ballet instructors like former Pennsylvania Ballet Company dancer Carol Klocke Murphy and Joe Cipolla, who is a former principal dancer of the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Battaglia, 71, began her local dance school 47 years ago. She encourages serious dancers to travel and experience different camps to see what competition they're up against, but also believes local ballet camps can sometimes give students more attention.

"In some instances the home programs are better than the ones you get when you go away," said Battaglia. "If you're home you may only have 18 kids in a class. There can be 30 to 40 kids in a class when you're away."

But even dance classes and camps in Western New York are growing.

Directors of local dance schools reported seeing an increase in interest in not only ballet, but dance in general. Whether it's dance reality shows, movies or an increase in health awareness that has been attracting new students, the sport's popularity is rising.

"I've been running this school for about 14 years and I've felt in the last 15 years dance has become a lot more popular," said Royal Academy of Ballet and Dance director Elizabeth DiStasio-Waddell.

"Certain movies like 'Center Stage,' 'Straight up,' and the dance shows -- 'So You Think You Can Dance,' 'Live to Dance,' 'Dancing with the Stars.' It's been great for me. Anything with dance in it is a help for ballet."

DiStasio-Waddell's school on Englewood Avenue in North Buffalo is home to around 250 local dancers. This summer marks the 10th anniversary of its summer program.

Like the American Academy of Ballet summer camp, Royal Academy's summer workshop program, which runs from July 5 to July 22, includes more than just ballet lessons.

The program features ballet and pointe, but also partnering, musical theater, jazz, modern, choreography, and the adage forms of dance.

"It's a full-fledged camp and we do a performance in the end of each discipline," said DiStasio-Waddell.

While DiStasio-Waddell credits mainstream entertainment for the influx of dance fans, associate director at the American Academy of Dance Carol Klocke Murphy thinks it's a combination of factors.

"I think dance has become more popular with the reality TV shows that are out, but I also think dance has increased because we're more aware health-wise in our everyday lives and it's become more prevalent," said Klocke Murphy.

How does Classical Ballet of Western New York founder and director William Gentes measure interest in dance?

In square inches.

"We grew so much I had to double my building size," said Gentes. "We went from a 2,000-square-foot building to a 4,000-square-foot one."

Classical Ballet has two locations in Western New York that are instructing about 300 dancers. The school on Main Street in Lockport opened in 2002. In 2005, Gentes opened his second location on Harris Hill Road in Clarence, but had to move to a bigger building on Main Street in Clarence in 2009.

Gentes has seen a small, but noticeable increase in his summer camps as well.

"Last year we had 40 to 50 kids in the July camp," said Gentes. "The previous year was 30 to 40 kids."

Camps have taught Freitas more than just technique.

"When you're at camp, mornings to evenings, you're dancing all day long, six days a week, and you're stronger and have more stamina. I'm inspired, and I just want to keep going."

It's that inspiration that comes out in Freitas' dancing that makes her so great, said Battaglia.

"She's as beautiful inside as she is on the outside," Battaglia said. "I would be very surprised if Gemma didn't make it [professionally]," said Battaglia. "You have to have that special something and Gemma has that. It's something that you're born with, and she's got it."

In the past 47 years, 99 of Battaglia's students have gone on to dance professionally.

With Juilliard as her next step, Freitas could be No. 100.

e-mail: lmariacher@buffnews.com

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