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Kelley trains at Kirov Academy

Leiza Kelley, 11, spent July 8-29 studying at the world-renowned Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.

Leiza, a fifth-grader at The Episcopal School of Knoxville, was among 500 dancers from around the country who auditioned for the program run by Oleg Vinogradov, former artistic director for the famed Kirov Ballet in Russia. Fewer than 300 were accepted.

The training is part of a lifestyle for Leiza that includes ballet lessons that she’s taken since age 6, frequent practices and other special training, which included two weeks last summer studying at the prestigious Rock School for Dance in Philadelphia, Pa.

Leiza wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Dancing is in my blood,” she said. She now studies at Van Metre’s School of Dance in Maryville under Amy Moore Morton, artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company.

“It’s part of her. It’s what she wants to do,” Leiza’s mother, Lorna Kelley, said. Lorna is a physical therapist who also trained as a ballet dancer. She holds a master’s degree in ballet from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

The payback for experiences like this summer’s study with the Kirov Academy is the opportunity for exponential increase in skills.

“You can concentrate on your art. You can focus on your art all day long,” Lorna said. “Last year she improved so much in two weeks. It’s amazing what you learn in a whole day.”

Additional benefits, she said, are the inspiration of working in close proximity to senior dancers and the chance to make friends from all over the country.

Leiza spent about six hours a day in classes and workshops studying pointe, character, jazz, modern and Spanish dance while in Washington D.C. In addition, she learned nutrition, stage makeup, Pilates and physical conditioning, among other skills.

The story of Leiza’s ballet career began with the decision years ago by Lorna and Jim Kelley, now chairman of the Department of Natural and Behavioral Science at Pellissippi State Technical Community College, to search in the Ukraine for a child to adopt.

Their quest led them to an orphanage in the town of Cherkassy.

“When we went to adopt her, the orphanage director told us there were no girls,” Lorna said. “My husband pulled out a picture of me in a tutu. He said, ‘She’s always wanted a little girl.’ The orphanage officials looked at it and said, ‘OK, you should see this one little girl.’ They said, ‘This little girl looks like a dancer.’”

The little girl was Leiza, Lorna said. The Kelleys were overjoyed to get her.

As time went by, Mrs. Kelley watched the little girl with her trained eye. When Leiza was 18 months old, Mrs. Kelley took her to a Christmastime performance of “The Nutcracker.” Leiza watched the dancers.

“She sat transfixed for a whole act,” Lorna said.

As the orphanage workers had noticed, Leiza appeared to have a dancer’s shape.

“She seemed to have pretty feet and pretty legs for dance even when she was very young,” her mother said. She enrolled Leiza in a dance class when she was 4 and in ballet when she was 6.

Even then, Lorna said, “Teachers would tell me she was good.” She began taking Leiza to auditions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lorna described some of Leiza’s particular strengths: “She’s got a very nice body – beautiful muscle tone and pretty feet. She has hyper-extended knees. She has a pretty line for a dancer – it means they straighten a little beyond straight. She’s got a lot of stage presence. She’s a good little actress on stage. Your eye is drawn to her. She works really hard in class too.”

At ESK, Leiza is known for her sunny disposition, hard working attitude – and her love for dance, said her fourth-grade teacher, Jeannie Hoover.

“When she hits the stage, she’s such a professional. Her presence on stage is unbelievable,” Hoover said.

Leiza has attended ESK since she was in kindergarten. Her other interests include riding her bicycle, playing with her friends and acting out her favorite television show, “Little House on the Prairie.” She has one sister, Yana, a second-grade student.


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