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Dedication, discipline and grace

Nervous dancers don't sweat the jitters; their legs know the routines
by: Jennifer Clampet, ON HER TOES — Julianna Bland, 18, of Tigard, performs some pointe work during rehearsals for The Dancer’s Studio’s “The Nutcracker” performance earlier this month.

Sometimes when Julianna Bland stares off stage, all she sees is pitch black. The spotlight is on her, and she can't see whether the auditorium seats are filled or not.

She gets a little nervous before rising on the 4-square-inch boxes on her shoes and gliding across the stage.

'If I'm happy, I dance,' said the 18-year-old Tualatin High School senior. 'If I'm sad, I dance.'

Nerves or not, she performs. And even if Bland, who has trained in ballet for 15 years, is afraid of forgetting the routine, she knows her legs never will.

'I don't always have to think about it. If you do something over and over again, your muscles just remember.'

Dancers call it muscle memory. Neuroscientists consider it a shorthand conversation between the brain and the motor muscles when movements become so thoroughly mapped in the brain that they seem to happen without effort.

But regardless of the science, teachers and coaches believe that the best dancers have something else in common - a dedication that drives a performance's routine into their brains.

Michelle Girard, owner of The Dancer's Studio in Tigard, chose 16-year-old Bland last year to perform as a principal in the studio's production of 'The Nutcracker.'

Bland was shocked. She'd been with the studio for two years at that time, and the thought of taking on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was overwhelming.

But Girard was confident. Bland was graceful and elegant and had immaculate pointe work, she said.

'To me the Sugar Plum Fairy is a queen. And that's what I saw in Julianna - regalness,' said Girard.

On Dec. 16, Bland performed the role for a second year in a row in front of a sold-out audience in the Tualatin High School auditorium.

According to Girard, it's the dancers with heart who from the age of 3 follow the pink tutus all the way to the world of pointe work and bright stage lights.

'It's the determined ones,' she said. 'The determined ones love it. The determined ones want it. And they are the ones who stick with it.'

In the world of ballet, the professionals aren't necessarily the best and most naturally gifted dancers, said Girard. Years of training, callused feet and the realization that even professional ballerinas continue to take lessons, weed out the dancers who can't commit.

Even the crowds of young girls who flock to the pink tutus thin out as the students reach high school age. Bland can remember sitting in the British Dancing Academy where she trained in Seattle and looking up to the teenage ballerinas. It was then that Bland promised herself she'd do ballet all the way through high school.

But even after 15 years of training, Bland hesitates to call herself a ballerina. It's a title the high school student reserves for the professionals, she said, the ones who make a living dancing in ballet companies.

Bland doesn't have dreams of growing up to be a ballerina. She plans to attend college to become a physical therapist, and if possible she'll try to continue taking ballet lessons and maybe find a company to perform with. Bland added that dance would always be a part of her life.

'It becomes more than a hobby. It becomes part of you, and then it's like asking someone to live without air,' said Girard, a 44-year-old former professional dancer who began ballet at the age of 2. Girard has had a hand in producing or directing 'The Nutcracker' 150 times in her lifetime. The show is hard work, she said.

Bland practiced every day for more than two months to perfect her routine for the studio's 'Nutcracker' performance.

'Ballet is kind of against the laws of nature, yet we do it anyway,' Girard said as she explained the art of ballet where dancers actually balance their bodies on the tip of their shoes. One needs strong legs, a strong core and a strong heart in order to dance ballet, she said.

Bland admits that even when watching ballet, she pays close attention to the dancers' techniques and muscles.

'I look at everything, and I ask 'How did they do that?' And 'Can I do that to make my technique better?''

A recent article in the International Herald Tribune highlighted a group of neuroscientists working at the London-based Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic group devoted to health care, who found that dancers of classical ballet not only watch movements of other dancers but experience them as if they had just performed the step themselves.

The brains of classical dancers, according to the article, are exquisitely sensitive to recognizing movements they've rehearsed.

Girard shutters at the thought of someone comparing her dancers to the likes of performers like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.

Classical artists, Girard insists are extraordinarily intelligent.

'It takes an intelligent mind to do classical art.'