By Janis Fontaine
Tiny dancers pool around Ekaterina Shchelkanova’s perfect feet like a dozen ducklings, their bright eyes glued to the lithe woman with the translucent skin and graceful posture.
They know they are in the presence of greatness, and Shchelkanova easily commands the room, her Russian-accented English as smooth as her plié.
A troupe of 80 South Florida dancers ages 7 to 13 auditioned for and won parts in the Open World Dance Foundation’s production of Cinderella, on stage at the Parker Playhouse on Nov. 25 and 26.
The group features more than a dozen boys and girls from Palm Beach County who will dance on a big stage with professional dancers from the American Ballet Theatre. It is a huge honor and a thrilling accomplishment for these budding ballerinas.
One of the smallest dancers is Jolie Lavaux, 7, from Boca Raton. She has been dancing since she was 3. She’s gregarious and outspoken, her big personality belying her petite size.
Jolie naturally finds her way to front and center of the action during a rehearsal at Organic Movements in Boca Raton. Tiny but not timid, she leads a line of dancers dressed as flowers across the stage on tiptoes. The slight smile on her fine-featured face draws your eye like a magnet.
The auditions were open to all girls and boys, regardless of prior dance training or experience. One of Open World’s missions is to find talented young dancers and provide opportunities for them to reach their full potential. This includes bringing ballet programs to orphanages in Russia as well as opening auditions to non-dancers.
Shchelkanova founded Open World with her partner, Anton Boytsov, in 2010. Both were born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and met as students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy.
Founded in 1783 as the Imperial Theatre School, the first Russian school of theatrical dance, it is still considered one of the best in the world. Of the thousands of students who audition each year, about 350 are chosen for the intense program. In 1957, the school was renamed for Agrippina Vaganova, a graduate and professional dancer who became one of ballet’s most revered and accomplished teachers.
The school’s graduates are a who’s who of ballet: George Balanchine, Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is also one of Open World’s supporters.
This will be the second time Open World has staged Prokofiev’s ballet with student performers. Last year, Misty Copeland danced the lead in the foundation’s production in Houston, which brought more than 130 kids to the stage.
Cinderella is a classic role that most ballerinas long to dance, and it’s a role Shchelkanova knows well. She sings the score as she demonstrates the steps, and at 47, she’s as strong and limber as any student.
Her precision and grace are mesmerizing, and those skills earned her top roles in ballets around the world and even took her to the big screen in the Academy Award-winning film Chicago.
Shchelkanova (credited as Ekaterina Chtchelkanova) danced alongside Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the tragic, wrongly convicted Hunyak in the Cell Block Tango number.
Mikhaila Whiteman, 21, of Long Island, is Shchelkanova and Boytsov’s personal assistant and a gifted dancer. After studying at Vaganova, Whiteman danced the leads in both The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty at St. Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Theatre. She’s the oldest of the handful of students chosen to train with and represent Open World, and she helps fine-tune the girls’ performance.
It’s a bit like herding kittens, but some of them, like Cephanie Amelia Sanchez Cole, 10, of Delray Beach, are more easily coached than others. Tall and flexible, she hangs on Shchelkanova’s every word, and her attention to detail earned her a spot out front.
Cephanie goes to Plumosa School of the Arts; between school and private lessons, she dances six or seven days a week. She likes ballet, jazz and art.
“I would love to be a professional dancer, but I also really like art because I get to be both proper in ballet and messy in art,” she says.
Many of the dancers say they’re drawn to dance because of the music, and they love the combination of athleticism and artistry required to master ballet. Their mothers say dance builds strength — physical, mental and emotional — maturity and character.
“Learning steps,” Shchelkanova tells them, “is not the same as dancing. Everyone must pay attention. Everyone must count. We have amazing dancers coming and we have to be ready.”
Ballet is a work of minutiae. A minor change in the placement of the foot is like the difference between matte and gloss in painting. Turning the knee out even an inch can turn a dancer from mediocre to magnificent.
Jolie’s mother, Cheryl Lavaux, says she knows her daughter is learning more than dance steps: “Self-respect, discipline, problem-solving and perseverance, in addition to balance, coordination, strength and flexibility.”
To Jolie, it’s much simpler: “I like pointing my toes and stretching.”
Dancers from Palm Beach County include Angelina Aramouni (12), Jolie Lavaux (7), Chloe Rivet (13) and Brianna Salcedo (10), all of Boca Raton; Aaron Gomez (8) and Yacob Gomez (9), of Boynton Beach; Ana Baraldi (7), Cephanie Amelia Sanchez Cole (10), Alyssa Jin (9), Sophia A. Triminio (7), Mikayla L. Wieland (10) and Zariah Valentine (11), of Delray Beach; Savonya Haliburton (12), of Riviera Beach, and Jayla Jacobs (7), of West Palm Beach.
If You Go
What: Cinderella, featuring Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns, principals of American Ballet Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25 and 2 p.m. Nov. 26
Where: Parker Playhouse at the Broward Performing Arts Center, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets: $35-$175 at