After threading her needle, sophomore Camille Locke picks up the pink satin slipper. She pulls an elastic strap across the slipper, stitching it to the side to hold it in place.
“I started when I was 3,” Locke said. “I’m 16 now, so that’s 13 years.”
Like most ballet dancers, Locke started dancing long before she can remember.
Right now she’s sewing the ribbons on her pointe shoes in preparation for her role in the corps of the Sacramento Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.
Each pair costs $100. The longest a pair lasts is two months.
On the other hand, junior Dakota Cosgrove doesn’t do anything to prepare for her dance class. She stores clothes in her locker at the dance studio, so once she gets there, she is ready to go.
Cosgrove also began her dancing journey at Sacramento Ballet. But in early 2013, she left the “strict rules of ballet” for the Contemporary Dance Conservatory.
Cosgrove said she found the atmosphere at Sacramento Ballet competitive and unwelcoming.
“The only thing I was getting out of it was a good technical background,” Cosgrove said.
Now her new studio in downtown Sacramento, where she dances for 20 hours a week, has become her second home.
Locke spends 15 hours a week dancing.
“Sometimes I feel like it’s a lot,” her mother Stacy Locke said. “It’s often six days a week, so it impacts weekends and family activities.”
Once Locke’s class begins, there’s no stopping.
First there’s barre.
“And push. And demi. And keep your weight on the right foot. Heel,” instructor Melanie Haller calls out, as she claps her hand to signal each new movement.
Haller received her training with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under the direction of Marcia Dale Weary. As soon as she graduated from high school, Haller started teaching at Sacramento Ballet.
The dancers stand rigidly in straight lines.
And then Locke moves in unison with the eight other dancers – seven girls and one boy.
“Hold and hold,” Haller continues.
Locke points her foot to the front, clenching her thighs. Her right hand shoots into the air while her left hand rests gracefully on the barre.
Locke’s strength, according to Haller, is her ability to sustain positions for a long period of time.
“And she displays grace in her port de bras (carriage of the arms),” Heller said.
But the softness in her dancing results in her being weaker when it comes to attack and boldness in her movements.
As they follow Haller’s instructions, the dancers stare stoically ahead. The beads of sweat covering their faces are the only indication of the strenuous nature of their movements.
Soft piano, violin and flute Christmas music fills the room.
The squeak the chair makes when I shift in my seat cuts through the graceful atmosphere like a knife.
Haller gently touches Locke’s back, encouraging her to stand even straighter.
Then comes stretching.
The dancers hasten to the back of the room and sip a bit of water before beginning.
Now spread out around the room, they work their way into the splits.
Like human taffy, they maintain their splits, bend their ramrod-straight backs and touch their foreheads to the ground.
Despite their rigorous routine, the dancers’ hair is still neatly pulled back into buns. (They comb hairspray through their hair before practice to prevent any flyaways.)
The dancers exude an aura of mechanical perfection, giving the impression that they are separated from their clockwork music-box counterparts by only a few degrees.
And they finish with center.
First, Haller demonstrates.
“Ladies, you enter from the corner,” she instructs. Locke does a series of jumps and turns, working her way to the center of the room. Once she arrives, the male dancer lifts her by the waist.
He pushes her into the air, and then drops her back to the ground where she lands on her toes, hands far above her head.
But at Cosgrove’s studio, mechanical perfection isn’t the goal.
“Boom, boom, ba, ba,” teacher Lena Logan shouts over the techno music blasting from the speakers.
For the opening beats of the music, the dancers improvise steps.
Then they gather at the front of the room, swirling their hands. With the next beat they tighten their muscles.
Logan cuts off the music and calls the girls to the corner.
“You need to make it believable! I want to see tension. What do I mean by tension?”
“Holding yourself tight.”
“The inner struggle between yourself,” Cosgrove answers.
“Exactly!” Logan says.
Then she has each group of girls try it again.
Logan was trained primarily in ballet with Berkeley and Oakland Ballet. She spent some time performing in Broadway shows in Las Vegas.
Unlike the black leotards and tights with no holes required by Locke’s instructor, Cosgrove wears black spandex shorts with a loose-fitting tank top. Most of her hair has fallen out of her ponytail and is sticking to the sweat on her face.
And as opposed to the pointe shoes Locke painstakingly sews, Cosgrove dances in bare feet.
Many of the girls, drenched in sweat, eventually strip down to sports bras.
Once each group has shown their mastery of the steps, they move onto stretching.
Logan turns up the music, the ground trembling from the bass, as the girls partner up.
Cosgrove lies on the ground, her feet pointing up at a 90-degree angle to her body.
In rhythm with the music, her partner knocks her feet to the ground, while Cosgrove tightens her abs to keep her feet from touching the ground.
Despite the exercise’s resemblance to some form of torture, the girls are smiling.
Fists clenched to maintain her form, Cosgrove chats with her partner, filling her in on what she did over the weekend.
As they move on to squats, they line up against the back wall. In contrast to Locke’s silent stretching section, Cosgrove and her friends yell over the music to discuss the latest gossip.
Logan points out that Cosgrove’s strength is “her passion for getting the movement and style and portraying the character.”
Despite the stark differences in the style of their classes, Locke and Cosgrove share both a camaraderie with their fellow dancers and a commitment to dance.
“My teacher is kind of like my mom,” Cosgrove said. “They all care a lot about us.”
As Christmas approaches, the students at Sacramento Ballet have a Secret Santa gift exchange. If it’s anyone’s birthday, they bring cookies.
“We also have a group chat going where everyone talks to each other and sends videos of dances we are in,” Locke said. “So we can go over choreography before our rehearsals or if someone misses practice, they can catch up.”
Despite the large amount of time Locke and Cosgrove devote to dance, they both say they’ve never considered quitting.
“Well there was one time I considered it,” Locke said. “When I was 7, I didn’t do The Nutcracker. I was really sad when my sister (Cori, ‘13) got a lot of attention, and I didn’t. And then I went back to it.”
Cosgrove has never taken any time away from dance. For her, dance is a way to “get away from life and everything else for a little bit.”
Both say they hope to take a gap year after getting accepted into college to pursue dance.
During this year, Cosgrove would either do a training program, such as Alonzo King Lines in San Francisco, or switch to a studio in Los Angeles, where she can audition for shows.
Locke would use the year off to join the Sacramento Ballet dance company.
Even if the gap years don’t work out, both say they want to stay connected with dance in college.
Cosgrove would like to study dance at a school like Juilliard.
But Locke doesn’t want to major in dance.
“A dance major doesn’t help you with anything,” Locke said. Instead she would try to find a school near the college she attends where she could take ballet classes.
Once Haller dismisses Locke’s class, the dancers demurely file out of the room, whispering amongst themselves.
They quietly gather their belongings from the cubbies and leave.
The clamor of Cosgrove and her friends leaving echoes against the walls of the studio. Laughing loudly, they walk towards the cars.
Previously published in the print edition on Feb. 17, 2015.