It was an ordinary day in January when 18-year-old Keenan Kampa stepped out of her house, went to her master ballet class and changed her life.
The ballet prodigy from Oak Hill was training at a special master program at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in front of the Russain Kirov Ballet company, and stepped up to her trainer to say thank you for the instruction. As she turned to leave, he grabbed her arm and would not let her go until a Russian translator could come over.
Through the translator he asked the young woman her age and that he was amazed at her potential and technique. And then asked her if she would be interested in attending the group’s Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia — the school known for producing such ballet legends as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. After the director and other members of the company viewed some recorded samples of Kampa’s performances, she received a call and was offered a spot at the academy.
"I kind of had to take a doubletake, it was the last thing I expected," said Kampa. "I couldn’t believe it."
IN A LITTLE MORE than three months, Kampa will become one of just a few non-Russians and even fewer Americans to be trained in the history of the near 300-year-old academy as she travels to Russia for the intensive 10-month ballet program this September.
"I’ve been involved in ballet for so long and trained in these programs, and I can say that it’s almost unheard of for them to be this excited for somebody so quickly," said Julia Redick, the former ballerina and director of Conservatory Ballet in Reston.
Redick, who has taught Kampa in ballet since she was three-years-old along with her three sisters, said that she knew Keenan was something special at seven-years-old. During lunch at a ballet summer camp at her school, she watched as the young girl was doing pliés — a ballet technique that bends the knees — 154 consecutive times.
"It just showed me that she had that physicality, that she enjoyed the movement, enjoyed the work," said Redick. "Her body really responded to the movement and she kept doing it … she is very devoted to ballet."
By 11-years-old she was training every day of the week, and ballet quickly became her dominant interest.
Over the years, Kampa continued to stand out as she consistently met the challenges of the elegant dancing style, adapted to her teachers’ corrections without faltering and pushed herself to become constantly better, Redick said.
THE DAUGHTER of a baseball player, she has been home-schooled by her mother since she was 11. Kampa has always dreamed of becoming a professional dancer.
"Ever since I’ve been a little kid, ballet has just been the thing that I do," she said. "And it’s just so competitive, you can never know if you’re going to be a professional dancer."
It hasn’t always been easy.
Redick remembers when Kampa, after being accepted into a number of national ballet academies, attended the Boston Ballet Company’s summer program at 15-years-old and was disappointed to be listed at level one — the lowest skill level.
"She didn’t like that feeling at all," she said. "When you’re accepted to all the ballet companies, you expect that you’ve done very well, how can you be at level one?"
But Kampa continued to work, and the next summer she attended the program she was listed at level nine — the second to highest skill distinction. It was just another merit to Kampa’s undying devotion, according to Redick.
"So according to them she improved about nine years over the course of nine months," she said. "They saw what she could do."
One of those people was Shannon Parsley, a professional ballerina and teacher at the Boston Ballet School, who, with her husband, recruited Kampa for the summer program.
"I’ve seen Keenan grow so much in the last five or six years … she has just so much potential as a dancer," Parsley said. "She has a special gift, a special talent."
"What she’s going to learn at that academy, the history, the culture, she’s the type of person who can just soak it in and make so much out of it."
Kampa would end up joining other summer programs with the American Ballet.
WHILE SHE IS overjoyed to be a part of the academy and pursue her professional dreams, Kampa is still "a little nervous" to be leaving home to live in a foreign country for the next 10 months. Her two experiences leaving the United States before include a ballet performance in Switzerland and on a vacation with her family to Italy.
"I’m excited, but I know it’s going to be a hard year sometimes," she said. "But I would be going off to college anyway if I weren’t doing this, so I think I would’ve been feeling that regardless, only this is just a little farther."
Redick, who said that she is thrilled to see one of her students heading off to a bright career in ballet, will still feel sad when Kampa takes off for Russia in the fall.
"On one hand, I can say [that I’m proud], but on the other hand, I don’t want her to go," Redick said. "It’s very far away and when you’ve spent time with somebody everyday since she was a little girl … it can be a little hard."
Still, it gives Kampa the opportunity to do what she has dreamed of her entire life.
"I’ve seen the students come out of the school, and it’s very inspiring," Kampa said. "Getting the opportunity to go to the school is just giving me so much more of a chance to be a part of that."