Drive. Dedication. Passion.
Giggles. Friendship. Youth.
Such different words, yet they all fit together for the dancers at Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills. I had a chance to sit down and talk with a dozen of the students performing in this weekend's production of "The Nutcracker," and I don't recall ever meeting a more impressive group of teens.
Let's start with Quinn Mason of Huntington Beach. This 18-year-old Sugar Plum Fairy hopes to be with a ballet company some day, but she's also planning to go into the medical field, most likely physical therapy, after her dance career.
Lauren Denney, 15, who shares the role of Sugar Plum Fairy with Mason, attends San Clemente High School on top of her demanding schedule at the studio.
Then there are the three Maries — Nora Clemente, Victoria Yacap and Sofia Haase, all 14. They want to audition for a company in the future, but say missing college is not an option. For right now though, they all juggle high school and dancing.
"It's a big commitment to do both," Victoria said. "You have to plan everything."
Speaking of commitment, Jennifer Bummer, 14, moved to San Clemente from Montana because she wanted to work with Dmitri Kulev. She shares the roll of Snow Queen with Grace Fulton, 14, who commutes from El Segundo for daily practice, and Gianna Cassidenti, 15, who hails from Laguna Niguel.
And, fellas, don't think it's just a bunch of girls in tutus. Sam Zaldivar, 15, Devyn Lovett, 15, Bryce Lee, 14, and Patrick Frenette, who turns 16 next week, take on different roles for each show.
"We'll practice for four hours just tonight," said Sam, who started dancing because he was always at the studio when his sister took classes.
Bryce started out in much the same way, hanging around while his siblings were dancing.
I asked Bryce, who would like to be a principal with a company and then be a physical therapist, what he would say to other young men about doing ballet, especially those who would pick on male dancers.
"I'd tell other young men, anyone who picked on me, to take a class, pick any class, and see how hard it is," he said.
For Patrick, dancing has opened doors to a whole different place: England. He went last summer and is going again next year, but for now he enjoys his time at the academy.
"There are lots of great relationships," Patrick said. "I'm in class every day with six or seven guys. It's great for partnering and separates us from other studios."
Devyn, who started dancing at the same time as Sam, almost quit three years ago, but then he got serious.
"Dmitri pushes you a lot," he said. "He'll make you do something 50 times in class." But, he said, the students really learn the techniques.
In fact, the theme of a strong, but caring teacher came up with each student.
"Dmitri is very nice and really cares about his students," Mason said. "He puts everything into us."
"I'm happy to contribute to this school," Patrick said. "I'm learning a lot from Dmitri, [his wife] Jennifer and the other coaches."