Susan Shields knew her student Rita Donahue had talent just by the way she walked into class. So, when Shields heard that Donahue had won a space in the prestigious modern dance troupe the Mark Morris Dance Group, Shields wasn't surprised.
"She was strong when she walked in. And she was beautiful and focused in class," said Shields, an assistant professor of dance at George Mason University.
Donahue, a Fairfax native, returns to her hometown to perform with the Mark Morris Dance Group this weekend at the Center for the Arts at George Mason. A dancer who started taking ballet when she was 5, Donahue couldn't believe they had picked her to become a member of the troupe.
"I think I was more surprised than anyone," said Donahue, 23.
Her former instructors at George Mason are thrilled with Donahue's success.
"Rita has a very special way of performing and making a work look very good," said Linda Miller, then chair of the dance department at George Mason and now an associate dean with the College of Visual and Performing Arts. "Rita was dependable as a performer, and that is one of the most important things a dance company looks for."
Donahue has danced almost all her life. For one to two days a week throughout her childhood, Donahue took dance lessons. When the 1998 Paul VI graduate began high school, she focused more on ballet and practiced for 20 to 30 hours each week.
"It was really moving that felt so great," Donahue said. "It just seemed more natural that dance would become more of a focus in my life."
WHEN DONAHUE attended George Mason, she didn't consider becoming a dance major until one of her modern dance professors pulled her aside before class and asked why she hadn't declared her major yet. She ended up declaring a double major in dance and English shortly afterward.
"Academics have also been very important in my life," Donahue said.
After graduating in 2002, Donahue danced in several companies outside of Fairfax. She went to Cuba, where she danced in a modern dance troupe, taught lessons, learned salsa dancing, and became immersed in the culture. After Cuba, Donahue visited two dancer friends from George Mason who convinced her to move up to New York City. Donahue did, and danced with Craig Patterson's group.
In February 2003, she was one of 350 dancers who responded to an open call for one opening with the Mark Morris Dance Group.
"It was grueling," Donahue said. "It was quite a few days. In an open call, it's hard to expect too much. It was still a lot of fun and really exciting for me."
On the second day of auditions, they narrowed the group down to 10 and talked to everyone individually. Donahue was the last one they called in. They brought her into a room and offered her the position.
"It was very surreal," said Donahue, not expecting the outcome.
Since then, Donahue has been busy learning the repertory and touring with the troupe. She has traveled to California, Washington, Oregon and Massachusetts.
Although Donahue has performed numerous times on the Center for the Arts stage as a student, this weekend will be her first time performing on it as a professional dancer.
"The truth is, she just has it," said Shields, commenting on her former student's poise, musicality and intelligence. "The Mark Morris fit is very nice for her."
When Donahue isn't dancing, she tries to keep herself injury-free and happy. She loves living in New York, and goes out to see other dance performances, as well as catch up with friends and listen to live music.
"Dance is what I've grown up with. It's a part of who I've become," Donahue said.