Poised in the corner of the studio, Meredith Reffner finishes lacingup her toe shoes and silently waits for her cue to fly.
She breathes so shallowly that her costume barely moves. Bent scissor style over her long legs, she plays a sleeping fairy slowly awakened by the theme song to "The Boy Who Could Fly."
The music crescendos and suddenly she's off, swooping across the floor with fluid ease. "Ah, breathtaking," a hushed voice exclaims inthe background.
She rises in an arabesque, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. Two girls cluster in the doorway to watch.
Meredith ignores the distractions and finishes her solo with a flourish. She knows the steps by heart, having rehearsed them hundreds of times. But she's not bored. Every session gives her another chance to perfect the dance for a national contest this summer.
She's only 13, but Meredith has big dreams. She wants to be a prima ballerina and dance with the American Ballet Theater, one of the top companies in the nation.
Although her dream is shared by other eighth-graders across the country, Meredith has a better chance than most. She already has won several contests, including taking first place March 17 in the regional Junior Miss Dance competition in Ocean City. Meredith will represent Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania at the national contest in Las Vegas this summer.
Her teacher and the judges at the Junior Miss Dance competition agree that Meredith is gifted. A tape of her March 17 performance includes comments by the judges, who repeated that "the child has a gift." Meredith's ballet teacher, Edna Lee Kuhn, calls her "very talented."
Meredith is determined to become a professional ballet dancer.
Every day after school, she heads to the Edna Lee Dance Studio in Ferndale, where she spends three tofour grueling hours taking classes and practicing at the barre.
Friday nights, she rehearses her role in the "Alice in Wonderland" production being staged by the Annapolis Ballet Theater. On weekends, her mother drives her to classes at the Washington School of Ballet andthe Maryland Ballet Company in Baltimore. She even finds time to practice at home, rehearsing steps at a barre in the basement den.
"Ipractice a lot because I really, really like it," Meredith says. "I think ballet is a beautiful art, and I think it's one of my strong points."
Growing up in Glen Burnie, the youngest daughter of Doris and Michael Reffner, Meredith fell in love with ballet at an early age. When she was 4, her parents rented a video of "The Nutcracker." Watching Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland dance the Christmas classic, Meredith wanted to be just like them.
She took jazz, tap andballet classes at the International Studio of Dance in Jumpers Mall until it closed when she was in fifth grade. At the time, Meredith recalls, she wasn't "really serious about it."
When she started taking classes at Edna Lee's studio, on the second floor of the Burholme Shopping Center, Meredith "didn't stand out," her teacher says.
But with a little encouragement, Meredith became devoted to ballet. She's now happiest on her toes. In the dance studio, she can pull on a leotard, tights and ballet shoes and shed the awkwardness of being 13. Warming up at the barre and practicing leaps at the mirror, she feels most comfortable.
Watching Meredith lead a class last week, Kuhn tried to explain how she spotted the young girl's talent.
"She has the ideal dancer's body," Kuhn says. "That's a big part of it -- you have to have the equipment. And you have to work."
At 5 feet 4 inches, Meredith weighs only 85 pounds. But the thin girl with long, brown hair is "strong as steel," Kuhn says.
Meredith has a black belt in tae kwon do and practices Arnis, Filipino stick fighting. Kuhncompares her to a "nylon thread -- frail looking but really strong."
"It gives me more exercise and a lot of self-confidence," Meredith says, describing her tae kwon do classes. "It also gives me discipline I need in ballet."
Her love is classical ballet. Meredith hopes to dance the roles of Odette in "Swan Lake" and Aurora in "SleepingBeauty" some day and is studying the Cecchetti method. She won a scholarship last summer to participate in a two-week program sponsored by the Cecchetti Council at Michigan State University.
With ballet consuming most of her time and energy, Meredith rarely finds enough energy to worry about the cliques at school or other 13-year-old concerns. She's on the honor roll at Old Mill Middle School, but freely confesses that she doesn't "have a real career plan that requires serious studying." And she has closer friends at the dance studio, where the other girls support her ambition.
"I don't know if I can make it, but I'm going to try," she says during an interview at school. Shepauses for a moment, gazing off into the distance as if she can see her dream. Then a bell rings in the distance, summoning her back to class.
In another three hours, she will be back at the barre, performing the daily regimen that is at the core of every dancer's life. Some day, she hopes to practice the same steps in New York, perfectingevery movement for a performance that night.