Norma Pera's eyes sweep over the girls standing at the ballet bar. There are 11. They are slender-necked and quick-footed and young, and each is wearing a dark leotard, pale tights and an anxious expression.
They are among the 105 boys and girls auditioning for spots in the dance department at the Baltimore School for the Arts. It is 9: 15 a.m., and by the end of the morning, each will have plie-ed, pirouetted, leaped and stretched, as well as performed a solo. By the end of the morning, Pera and seven other dance professionals will have begun the excruciating process of choosing which of the 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds may return next fall.
It is not an easy task.
"We agonize over this," says Pera, head of the dance department. "We make preliminary decisions and secondary decisions and we toss them back and forth. Then we discuss it all over again."
Every February, hundreds of students, mostly in the eighth and ninth grades, vie for the chance to attend the 16-year-old performing arts high school located in the former Alcazar Hotel on Cathedral Street. Those accepted concentrate in one of six disciplines -- visual arts, instrumental music, vocals, dance, drama and stage production -- as well as completing their academic courses.
For three grueling days, the teachers painstakingly screen applicants for students who possess a combination of ability and drive. The entire process, which began with auditions last week, will end in late March, when the students receive letters informing them whether they have been accepted.
"What are we looking for?" says Stanley Romanstein, the school's director. "We are looking for artistic talent, and we are looking for a willingness to develop the talent."
Every year, competition is stiff. About 300 students attend the high school; about 95 percent of those who graduate go to college. Some also have gone on to perform with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the American Ballet Theatre, the San Francisco Dance Company; the Philadelphia Symphony, the New World Symphony, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra; in regional theaters, on Broadway, in films.
The number of students accepted annually varies from around 90 to around 110, says Wayne King, the academic dean. "Parents think we are trying to fill slots," he says. Instead, "We are trying to discover children who have the talent to finish a rigorous program."
This year, 1,030 students are applying to the school -- the highest number ever. In the last two years, the administration has seen the number climb from an annual average of about 700 to 850 students in 1996 to this year's high.
"We don't know the reason," says King. He cites better recruiting practices, recent articles in the media or an increased interest in arts education on the part of parents as possible reasons. Or it could be what the teachers refer to as "the Jada Pinkett syndrome."
Pinkett, a School for the Arts alumna, has in recent years become increasingly well-known for her roles in movies such as Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor." "In the last two years, when we go out to talk to students about auditions, they all know Jada and where the School for the Arts is," King says.
Aspirations and nerves
As the auditions begin, the school's elegant entrance hall, with its marble floors and curving stairway, is transformed by metal folding chairs and a sign-up table into a waiting area teeming with students and parents, aspirations and nerves.
The students arrive carrying flutes or cellos, ballet slippers or sheet music, boomboxes or portfolios. They come from middle schools throughout the city, from private schools, from the county, even from other states. (Students who live outside city limits are occasionally accepted but must pay tuition.)
Some students, prepared by years of private instruction, have the nonchalance of professionals. For others, who have little or no training, this is the first time they've performed for anyone other than family.
There's Deitrick Goodwin, a handsome, self-taught pianist who at 14 is sure that whether he attends this school or not, music will be part of his life forever. There's 13-year-old Ka-Mena Georges, who would prefer to be a doctor but figures a back-up career as an actress would not be a bad thing. And there's Steven Green, a 13-year-old trombone player with a winning grin, who says this is "the only place where I can practice in peace."
"If I don't get in, I will be greatly disappointed," Green says. "But I'm not going to quit. I'm going to keep going and going just like that pink rabbit with the drum."
All morning long, the calls echo through the lobby:
"10 a.m. Drama! Second floor, straight ahead."
"11 a.m. Dance! Down the hall, go right."
The students disappear -- into the theater, the dance studio, the music hall -- to perform a monologue, to present their artwork, to take rhythm tests, to answer questions about why they want to be a dancer, a violinist, a painter.
Parents must stay behind.