Leaping lizards! It's a bird. . . . It's a plane. . . . No, it's a team of Hornets. Actually, these Hornets are air-borne soccer players practicing their chasses during ballet class at the Long Reach Village Center in Columbia.
The 14-member team of 11- and 12-year-old boys meets once a week for an hour, practicing tendu and port de bras.
"Coordination, balance and strength are necessary ingredients when playing soccer," says their 40-year-old coach, Ronald Lee, who signed up for the classes with his team. "Everything that I have read suggests that ballet could help improve those areas."
But it took eight months of "knocking the idea back and forth" with the team membersto convince them that soccer balls and ballet could create the rightrhythm on a soccer field or in a gymnasium.
"They thought it was a sissy thing to do and worried about what their friends were going to say," Lee said.
If such worries ever bothered 12-year-old Michael McDonald, a forward on the team, they no longer do.
"Some of thepeople at school say that ballet is not normal -- they think our team is weird or something," said Michael, a seventh-grade student at Dunloggin Middle School. "We don't care what they say. When we win, we tell them to look at us now."
With such inspiration, the team -- which spurned conventional ballet garb in favor of regular work-out clothes and tennis shoes -- descended on ballet with Cindee Velle, their dance teacher. Velle directs 19 ballet classes six days a week at the Long Reach Community Center.
"During the first class, they wereself-conscious and found it humorous. . . . They asked me to play rap music," Velle laughed. She was uncertain how the classes would progress, but as a mother of two children -- Aimee, 4, and Alex, 2 -- the32-year-old Ellicott City resident had already observed some differences in the energy level between boys and girls. And Velle well remembered what it was like growing up with three older brothers.
"I kind of knew what to expect," she said. "When they come into class, it's like a tornado. One night I pulled out a whistle so that I could beheard above all of the noise. I figured that they would be able to relate to a whistle, and it worked. I still pull it out every once in a while," Velle said.
To let the boys "blow off steam," Velle encourages them to jog around the studio at the start of the one-hour class. The next segment, working at the barre, is less popular with the team. It focuses on body alignment, posture, stretching, and placement of feet, and the students remove their shoes to practice.
"Theirbiggest problem is flexibility. When we do stretches, you can hear their groans -- you would think they were 100 years old," Velle said.
But when the class goes to the center of the room, the boys pull their tennis shoes back on and are in perpetual motion as they travel across the huge room to the strains of classical ballet music, practicing various galloping and leaping motions, usually to the curious stares of an audience assembled outside the glass door of the studio.
"Their presence has caused a lot of attention; there are always noses pressed up to the glass," Velle said.
"The soccer students loveto jump; they would jump for an hour if they could. Some of them have an incredible bounce. It is so nice to have a group of students whoare in shape and have stamina. They are basically coordinated and learn very fast," Velle said.
The team has now attended the weekly class for two months, and the players have just begun a 12-week seriesof dance classes. It will be another month or two before the resultsof ballet will pay off on the playing field, Velle said.
However,she has observed some subtle results.
"I have seen a gradual change in attitudes," she said. "They don't complain about it. And every once in a while, I'll hear someone singing along with the music."
Lee said he's noticed a "mental awareness" among the players that hasenabled them to protect themselves when they fall and to play better.
"The players have improved their jumping power, coordination andtheir foot motions. They are more flexible in their ankles and knees, which helps them to change directions more easily," Lee said.
Perhaps those skills have contributed to the Hornets' current undefeated record. Of their current 12-game season, they have won four games straight during indoor contests in Baltimore. As members of Division 1of the Soccer Association of Columbia, they came in third place lastfall, losing only one game. And they headed their division the year before, coming in second in the state.
"We will win it this time,"said Lee. He believes it is the boys' love for soccer and their determination to win that has driven the team to continue their ballet lessons.
"They tend to say, 'Oh no, ballet.' But they go," Lee said.
If the coach's son, 12-year-old Adam Lee -- a center halfback forthe team -- is typical of the rest of the soccer players, there's probably no stopping the Hornets' sting.
"I think the ballet lessonshave helped me. I can run faster and I can jump higher," said the seventh-grade student at Oakland Mills Middle School in Columbia. "The lessons keep getting harder and harder, but that's good," he said.
But he doesn't hesitate when asked what he dislikes about ballet. Ithas to do with those observers who watch through the windows while the class is under way.
"Some are girls that go to my school and they take ballet lessons right after us."