By Leaps and Bounds


A Year In Their Lives

December 28, 2003|By Linell Smith

Once there was a boy who loved to dance.

Even in kindergarten, Nick Sipes liked nothing better than watching ballet on public television. Sometimes he and his older brother would make up dances, turning and leaping together through their home in Parkville.

But while Justin eventually stopped dancing, Nick continued. By the age of 12, he was serious enough to quit soccer because it was cutting into his rehearsals of jazz and lyrical dance.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Arts & Society section misspelled the name of dancer Nick Sipes. It has been corrected for the archive.

Classical ballet would prove even more demanding. As Norma Pera, director of dance at the Baltimore School for the Arts, points out: Ballet season is every day, all year long.

It helps to be lean, strong and tall enough to partner ballerinas.

When Nick was accepted into the prestigious high school, he was barely 5-foot-3. He was also a bit pudgy, like a bear cub, Pera remembers, and had much to learn about technique. But what Nick lacked in stature, he more than made up for with energy, enthusiasm and dedication.

By sophomore year, Nick was still short. But his hard work was paying off. Pera cast him as "the naughty little Fritz" and as a Russian dancer for public performances of The Nutcracker. In private shows for city school children, he tried the role of the prince. It was a struggle. The girls he partnered were taller than he was, and he had trouble lifting them.

Then, this year, it finally happened.

This year, Nick grew.

He grew a lot: Four inches or more, according to his mom.

The school security guard started calling him "Big Nick."

At 5-foot-8 1/2 , Nick was now taller than both the girls who played the Snow Queen and Marie, and at least as tall when they were on point. And though he weighed a little less than he had before, he felt stronger.

But landing the lead role in Nutcracker wasn't that simple.

Each time the teen-ager performed now, his body felt slightly different -- because it was slightly different. While a musician could rely on tuning his instrument the same way over and over, a dancer who was growing never knew exactly what his body parts might do. His point of balance would change. His arms were suddenly longer. His center of gravity was different when his chest was an inch higher.

Such challenges, though, only made Nick work harder. He got stronger. He could finally do four turns in a row. He did pushups and lifted weights at home as well as at school. He attained the technical ability he needed for the lead role. Not only was he now strong enough to lift his partner, but also to proceed straight into the demanding solo that followed it.

It's rare for a high school junior to dance the role of the prince in Nutcracker, Pera says.

A growth spurt like Nick's can take lots of people by surprise. Back in the spring, even Anita Sipes was dumbfounded by the improvement in her son's ability. During one performance, she mistook Nick for someone else until a friend corrected her.

This is really something great. Nick looks great, they both agreed afterward.

His technique was better and he had more presence. More mature, maybe. Or grown-up. Whatever it was, those extra inches of growth had also altered Nick's attitude.

"It's made me more proud of who I am," he says. "Less stand-backish. Now that I'm partnering girls who are shorter than me, it just feels so much better. It just gives me a bigger confidence boost.

"I'm more comfortable going on stage now. I know what I have to do and I know how to execute it."

Nick Sipes is 16. He will need lots of such self-assurance in the next few years, which should prove crucial in his quest to become a professional dancer. Ballet companies are looking for "a well-rounded package, someone who can jump, turn and partner. Partnering is a big deal," he says.

This year, it feels like he's right on track. Growing into a role can seem to take forever, then happen overnight -- almost like magic. It's almost like dancing the Nutcracker Prince before a full house, dancing taller and prouder than you ever have before.

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