A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Big Apple opportunity: Edmond ballerina receives prestigious New York scholarship
Roma Catania, a 15-year-old student of the Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet, has received a merit scholarship to attend American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the celebrated New York company’s pre-professional training program for ages 12 to 18. Roma, who was discovered last spring during the Oklahoma City school’s certification process, will start classes in New York on Sept. 8, a week before her 16th birthday.
Dressed in lavender leotards and still-stiff ballet shoes, little girls galloped eagerly across the wooden floor of Studio 1 Monday afternoon.
Mandy O’Neal can still remember when her daughter, Roma Catania,was a bounding tot like the ones she teaches at the Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet. Now, Roma still has the gangly quality of most teenagers, but she moves with a fluidity and flexibility most coltish adolescents would envy.
“That’s my favorite age to teach,” O’Neal said, who instructs the school’s 2- to 5-year-old students, as she watched 4-year-olds from a Ballet Discovery 2 class file into Studio 1. “They’re just precious.”
Not only was Monday the first day of the Dance Center’s new year of classes, it also marked its first day as a certified American Ballet Theatre School. And the prestigious and stringent process of receiving certification is already paying off for the center – and for Roma.
The Edmond teenager has received a full merit scholarship to attend American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the celebrated New York company’s pre-professional training program for ages 12 to 18. Roma, who was discovered in spring during the Oklahoma City school’s certification process, will start classes in NYC Sept. 8, a week before her 16th birthday.
“I’ve learned so much here at Oklahoma City Ballet, but I’ll be able to learn even more of the ABT curriculum. It will just mean a lot of opportunities,” she said.
After studying last fall at the Houston Ballet, Roma returned home for spring classes, when the Dance Center of OKC Ballet instructors were undergoing the training required to become the state’s only American Ballet Theatre-certified school.
“We’re the fifth one in the country,” said OKC Ballet Executive Director Shane Jewell. “We had the director of the American Ballet Theatre National Curriculum here. He taught our entire faculty … and 100 percent of our faculty had to pass to get certified to teach the American Ballet Theatre syllabus. So when students graduate from here, they’re not just graduating from Oklahoma City Ballet, they’re graduating from the standards and syllabus of American Ballet Theatre.”
Roma was asked to demonstrate during the May teacher training sessions, and American Ballet Theatre’s curriculum director, Raymond Lukens, liked what he saw.
“I was sitting down in one of the teacher trainings. The director stood up and walked out, and he looked at me and he went like this,” O’Neal said, crooking her finger. “We went out into the hallway … and he said, ‘I’d like to see your daughter in New York. Can you come next week?’”
“I was demonstrating and I saw her get pulled out, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s happening?’” Roma added with a laugh. “I had no idea what was going on, and then she told me and I was extremely surprised and very excited.”
With the OKC Dance Center’s blessing, they made the trip to the Big Apple despite the short notice.
“I took a couple classes with all the students and from then I got accepted. Very, very, very fun,” Roma said. “It was a great experience. It was intimidating because all the dancers were beautiful, but I was really excited to go there next year and to learn from them. It’s amazing their technique and how they work on it.”
Not only is she a third-generation ballerina, Roma is the third generation of her family to dance with OKC Ballet. Her grandmother, Katha Bardel, was a soloist with the company; she now runs her own Edmond dance studio called A.R.T.S. (Arts Revealing the Son).
“My mother’s the one who really got us started, and it’s in our blood. It’s so fun to be here teaching now and see my girls grow up here,” said O’Neal, adding that Roma’s younger sisters, Haven, 11, Keziah, 13, also are students at the Dance Center of OKC Ballet.
O’Neal danced with OKC Ballet as an apprentice before performing around the world with Impact Productions. Although she returned to OKC Ballet’s school about six years ago as an instructor, she said she has avoided teaching her daughters.
“I wanted to be the cheerleader mom that went ‘Go, go, go,’ and not the one that went ‘You’re not doing that right,’” she said. “Because ballet is pressure enough, I wanted to be the one that they could come to after class and tell me all of their good things and the hard struggles, too, without me trying to correct them or judge them.”
While she started lessons at 3 years old, Roma said she realized when she was about 13 that she wanted to make dance her career.
“I knew about three years ago, just watching all the professional dancers go far and start young and just really dance and be amazing and beautiful,” Roma said.
With their dance background, her family is aware that her window for professional dancing is narrow.
“She’s almost 16, and that’s when you really want to start focusing on finding your home for the next stage. That’s why she’s going (to American Ballet Theatre’s school) this year,” O’Neal said. “The professional career is not very long. You know, the body can’t take it. It’s not like a career until you’re like 50 or 60, but there are other careers in dance like a director, an instructor, a choreographer that you can be 100 years old and still do.”
Although Roma received a full scholarship, the New York City school doesn’t have dormitories. American Ballet Theatre instead finds their young dancers-in-training supervised housing, and Roma has a spot reserved in the home of a mother who has already raised a dancer of her own.
“They really take care of their dancers and want to make sure they’re safe and not have them just find their own housing,” O’Neal said. “It’s a nice transition into living on her own eventually.”
But the housing will cost the family about $2,000 a month for room, some meals and laundry service. Roma is working on a Kickstarter campaign that will help her raise money for her housing, transportation, dance supplies and other needs.
“It’s a larger studio, it’s in New York, and it’s one of the top, prestigious companies in the world. And it is officially the American ballet company … so they do a lot of traveling. She’ll get to travel with her dance; she’ll get to the see the world and live the life as a professional ballerina,” O’Neal said.
“And I’m excited that my other girls are going to be here learning the curriculum while she’s in New York learning the curriculum.”
With the certification, Jewell said the Dance Center of OKC Ballet is now a kind of farm school where American Ballet Theatre can scout for talented youngsters like Roma to bring to its New York program.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students,” he said.
TO KNOW MORE
The Dance Center of Oklahoma City Ballet
Enrollment: Still open for fall semester.
Classes: Offered for children, teens and adults.
Where: 7421 N Classen Blvd.
HOW TO HELP
To contribute to Roma Catania’s Kickstarter campaign “A Home for Roma in NYC” go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/497439769/a-home-for-roma-in-nyc. The Edmond teen, who has received a full scholarship to American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City, is trying to raise $18,000 by Oct. 20 for housing and other expenses.