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For the Love of Dance

Great Falls teen makes her mark at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Meeting Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American male dancer to become a member of a major ballet company, was quite a thrill for 15-year-old ballet dancer Stephanie Somerville of Great Falls.

But even more so was when she learned of his intentions in observing her dance technique at the Kennedy Center in January: a secret tryout for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s six week summer intensive program. Mitchell annually comes down to evaluate the dancers at the Pre-Professional Residency at the Kennedy Center, a program Stephanie is a part of.

"She didn't even know she was trying out," said Andy Somerville, Stephanie's father.

Even so, not only was she accepted, she received a full scholarship, saving the family approximately $3,000 in tuition and boarding.

According to Ronald Alexander, school administrator of the dance theatre, around 200 students are attending this year's program. And being given a scholarship is an accomplishment not to be scoffed at.

"You have to have a very high degree of technique," Alexander said. "You have to show promise to be able to make dance, whether ballet or modern dance, a career."

Founded in 1969 by Mitchell and Karel Shook, the school itself has grown from an initial enrollment of 30 students to more than 700 each year. Its reputation was high enough that when the Somervilles heard about it in January, they didn't consider other alternatives, which included Boston, Houston and Atlanta, whose auditions also take place in January.

"We found out about this, we didn't audition anywhere else," said Shannon Somerville, Stephanie's mother.

The summer intensive program, open to 8-21-year-olds of various skill levels, started on July 5 and ends on Aug. 12. In addition to ballet, the students learn gymnastics and various styles of lyrical jazz and African dance originating from Ghana and Senegal.

On the last day, the school will hold the Annual Summer Street Festival, in which all students perform what they've learned for an audience on 152 Street, where the school is located in New York. The festival starts at 2 p.m. and lasts several hours.

"It includes people from all over Manhattan, people from all over New York City," Alexander said.

This year's festival carries a special meaning for the school, as it coincides with the street's renaming to the Dance Theatre of Harlem Way.

"It makes it very special," Alexander said.

Ballet has been special for Stephanie Somerville since she began at 2-and-a-half years old. She said the expression of feeling makes her love it.

"You can express yourself," Stephanie Somerville said. "You can just let it all out."

Her first taste of ballet came when she began taking pre-ballet classes on Saturdays.

"They wear their little tutus and, you know, they learn to move to music," Andy Somerville said.

As the years have gone by, so have the performances, particularly of the Nutcracker, which she has performed since she was 6. Perhaps the most memorable of those performances was during Christmas at the Kennedy Center with a Russian ballet company. She played the Rat King's daughter.

"She didn't do too much, but it was a great experience for her, and she got paid [around $25] for it," Andy Somerville said.

Somerville spends approximately 13 hours a week practicing ballet, not including rehearsals on Sunday. Monday through Thursday she spends taking classical ballet lessons. Saturday is devoted to the Kennedy Center program, in which professionals from the Dance Theatre of Harlem fly in for 20 Saturdays to teach.

"It's no different than say, the Notre Dame football coach doing camp for football players," Andy Somerville said.

Of course, Ballet isn't the only thing on her plate. Stephanie has also played lacrosse and field hockey at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md. where she will enter the ninth grade this year.

In addition, it can put a strain on her social life.

"I don't get to, like, hang out with friends on Saturday and have sleepovers and stuff, so it's stressful," Somerville said.

Stress that Andy Somerville said she will have to learn to work out.

"She's started to question, as she's gotten older, time management," Andy Somerville said. "So far she's been able to balance everything out."

Shannon Somerville is confidant than she can continue to do so.

"She has a lot of energy and can handle anything that's thrown at her," she said.

Will handling ballet be part of Somerville's career?

She doesn't know yet, and refuses to give too much thought to it.

"I just want to keep going and see what happens at the end," Stephanie Somerville said. "I can't really make a decision now."