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The idea was for the young dancers to practice leaping.

The 6- to 8-year-olds gathered at one corner of the dance studio at Ballet Caliente in Lexington Park on July 24 and listened as teacher assistant Isabelle Lopez, 15, of Leonardtown and teacher Abi Albers, 17, of Breton Bay offered a list of reminders.

“What do you need to remember when you leap? Spread your legs out. Point your feet. Keep your legs straight,” Albers said as she cued the music from Camille Saint-SaŽns' “Carnival of the Animals.”

“You need to look up,” Isabelle said to the children, tapping herself under the chin.

The teachers set out aqua-colored strips of fabric on the studio floor to represent water. “OK! Watch Miss Isabelle jump over the river,” Albers said, as the music began.

Lopez, who at 4 feet 11 inches tall and about 85 pounds is only a little bigger than the campers she's teaching, traversed the diagonal of the studio in three graceful jumps, high above the “river.” Legs straight. Feet pointed. Head up.


Lopez smiled the whole time. She's good at this. Dancing is what she loves, and it shows.

“I don't want to do anything else but dance,” Lopez said later. She dreams of becoming a professional.

“She's a great dancer,” Albers said. “She's incredible.”

Sheryl-Marie Dunaway, artistic director of Ballet Caliente and Isabelle's longtime teacher, has already accomplished what Isabelle dreams of doing.

Dunaway started training at 3, and at 16 she was invited to become an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet Company. She then attended the National Academy of Dance in Champaign, Ill., a feeder school for the American Ballet Theater. She majored in dance at college and performed with Ballet El Paso, Ballet de Las Americas in Mexico, Ballet Fantastique and Monterey Peninsula Arts Company. She has taught dance for more than 30 years.

It's competitive, Dunaway said of a dancing career. It requires the dedication of an Olympic gymnast, staying focused and training from a young age. “It is very demanding physically.”

And yet, Dunaway thinks that Isabelle has what it takes. “She is an advanced dancer ... She has the dedication. She has the intestinal fortitude,” Dunaway said.

She noted that Isabelle is musical and limber and that her body proportions are ideal for ballet — long legs, shorter torso and very arched feet. “She's also very strong,” Dunaway added.

Lopez has been noticed by prestigious people in the dance world. A frequent participant in Dance Theatre of Harlem programs and classes at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Lopez was offered a scholarship to attend a four-week program with the company in New York City this summer.

“Very few get scholarships,” Dunaway said. “It speaks volumes.”

But there are some things that only time will tell, such as how Lopez would deal with the disappointment that is inherent in a dancing career. Dancers don't get all the roles for which they audition. “All performers are people-pleasers,” Dunaway said, and rejection is hard to take. And rejection can come from things outside a dancer's control, like not getting a role because you're not the right size for a costume.

Isabelle is the daughter of 1st. Sgt. Michael and Geovana Lopez, the second of their four children. Her father just recently left the U.S. Army and is now in the Army Reserves. Her mother is a software engineer. She has an older brother, Michael, who is a senior at St. Mary's Ryken High School (Isabelle is a sophomore at the school), and two younger sisters, Gigi, 6, and Sophia, 4.

Isabelle's life has been shaped by being part of this military family. She was born in Germany and also lived in Georgia, out in Washington and Maryland — all by the time she was 5. She talks about how difficult is has been for her father to be gone during his deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. “It was honestly terrible when he left,” Isabelle said of his most recent deployment to Afghanistan.

Isabelle said her life is simple: It has two parts — dancing and her family. School is worked in there somewhere.

Geovana says that even as an infant Isabelle responded to music, moving some part of her body. “There was a twinkle in her eye, I swear,” she said.

Isabelle's choice of pastime was settled early. It was dance. When she was 5 she decided to do something other than dance class, a decision that Isabelle says she still regrets. Her cousins were playing soccer and Isabelle asked to try it also.

Geovana remembers being at a game that ill-fated season, watching Isabelle out on the field. At one point, she noticed that Isabelle was running in the opposite direction from everyone else. In fact, Isabelle ran off the field, up to her mother and announced, “I'm done with soccer. I just want to dance,” Geovana remembers. And that was it.

“OK. But go out and finish the game,” Isabelle said her mother told her.

Isabelle said she knew for sure that she wanted to take dance to the next level and pursue a career in the art about two years ago. “It wasn't a hobby anymore,” she said.

To train, Isabelle takes classes, participates in summer intensive programs, auditions for everything she can, much of which requires traveling to the Kennedy Center and sometimes to Silver Spring. “There's a lot of very talented girls at this studio doing the same thing,” Geovana said of the Ballet Caliente students. And that's what saves the family. It means that they can take advantage of carpools, which helps the Lopezes also devote time to three other children who also have activities.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of Ballet Caliente after finishing her camp duties last month, Isabelle said the time required to train is an easy sacrifice. “Most girls my age want to be at the mall and parties. I'd rather go to bed early so I have the energy to dance,” she said. “My life is literally — home, school, dance, home, school, dance. That's it.”

Isabelle hardly counts the cost. “Honestly, dancing is the most amazing feeling,” she said. “When I am dancing, I feel like ... freedom.”

But it's not just a sacrifice of time and other opportunities. “It's a big financial responsibility,” Geovana said. The cost has “crept up slowly through the years.”

For instance, a pair of point shoes can cost between $60 and $120, and Isabelle needs a new pair every couple of months. The cost for costumes is about $1,000 a year. And then there's the cost of summer intensive programs, classes and travel.

It can be challenging for a family with four children. When Isabelle was offered the scholarship this summer to attend the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the scholarship took care of the four-week program, but didn't pay for housing. The family couldn't afford that part, and Isabelle couldn't go.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Isabelle said, just noting how tickled she was that an African-American dance company wanted to work with her.

About this series

This story is the first in a three-part series about several people in St. Mary's County who are exerting themselves to reach for something out of the ordinary.

Part 1 — dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer

Part 2 — dreaming of winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest

Part 3 — dreaming of representing the United States in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro