Dancers hide hopes, fears with grace

Exhibit: While hundreds at the Baltimore Museum of Art sketch them, School for the Arts students play the part of flawless ballerinas.

January 04, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

With absolute awe and utter reverence, the little girl leaned toward her mother and whispered: "Look at the ballerina, Mommy. She's perfect. Just perfect."

The regal dancer, reflected in the mirrored walls as she stretched one long leg upon the waist-high barre, overheard the innocent comment and smiled.

The star-struck little girl, romanced by a pretty white tutu and worn ballet slippers, didn't know the story behind the graceful 17-year-old who was born to dance.

She knew nothing of a life that drives a skinny girl to obsess about being skinnier, of disfigured feet that bleed through white tights, of aching joints and stress-fractured bones, of falling asleep dreaming of Broadway only to wake up with nightmares of not making it.

"It's an honor for them to think we are so flawless," Ashley Wehrle said later. "But our lives aren't really like that. Being a dancer is well, it consumes you. Totally consumes you. Most days that's good. Some days it drives you crazy."

Yesterday afternoon, as hundreds crowded into a makeshift dance studio at Baltimore Museum of Art to sketch ballerinas as part of the recently concluded "Degas and the Little Dancer" exhibit, Wehrle and 16-year-old Monica Coates played the parts.

Her blond hair plaited tightly, Wehrle was a picture-perfect ballerina -- a long-legged 5-foot-6, weighing 114 pounds, with size 9 1/2 feet.

"They see only the beauty and the grace of what we do, and that's what we want them to see," she said. "But the life that allows us to be what we are is unimaginable to most people."

In her third year at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Wehrle has not eaten a slice of pizza in three years. She's been to Taco Bell once, but ordered only a bean burrito, hold the cheese.

She has no time for a boyfriend. She attends slumber parties only when they don't interfere with dance rehearsals. She regularly throws words such as "discipline," "structure," "rigid routines" into casual conversation.

She loves what she does -- like nothing else in her life except church and family -- but she worries.

Will Juilliard accept her?

Will her muscles be strong enough to do all the jumps while staying small enough not to ruin the unobtrusive, flat lines of her rock-hard body?

If she checks her weight more than every other day will she fall into the trap she has seen so many other dancers lose themselves to -- bulimia, anorexia, a combination of the two?

Will Broadway take her? A touring dance company?

"You think about all those things," she said from her Federal Hill home after the program had ended. "But you dance and forget."

Wehrle knows she is good. This year she was the Snow Queen in her school's production of "The Nutcracker." As a child, she danced with the Moscow Ballet. Her teachers praise her. She aced the auditions to be accepted at the elite Baltimore artistic high school. And audiences love her.

"Do you know why I dance?" she asks. "It's because I love the applause."

`It just wears you down'

The competition is dizzying some days.

"You always want to be the best, do the best, get the best part," she said. "That makes you feel pretty lonely sometimes. And sometimes the competition is so strenuous, so fierce, that it just wears you down and makes you so tired."

So she will cry to her mother, and Jane Wehrle will stroke her daughter's long blond hair and sigh: "Why do you do this to yourself?"

And just as quickly as the teen-ager was to run home and complain about this life she has chosen, she rises to defend it.

Defending her choice

"Because, mother," she will say, "there is nothing on earth like being on stage and dancing, opening your entire heart and soul up for the people watching you and making them see and feel something that no one else alive can make them see and feel."

Then she will bandage her bleeding toes and return to a mirrored room where expectations are high.

Back at the museum, as wistful children and serious grown-ups sketch her, Ashley Wehrle doesn't correct the little girl who wants to believe in the fantasy of the world's perfect prima ballerina.

One child at the back of the room knows the dream isn't true.

`It was no fun'

She is a worldly 6 years old and her name is Peyton Johnson. She began ballet classes at age 4 and quit during her eighth lesson.

Around her Catonsville home, Peyton's family can laugh about the experience now, calling the little girl's demanding former teacher the "Ballet Nazi." But at the time, it warranted plenty of tears.

"It was no fun," Peyton said, sitting at a miniature easel coloring a picture of Wehrle. "And it was supposed to be fun."

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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