‘All I wanted to do was dance’: Ballet scholarship competition helps further dancers’ dreams

Dancers nervously wait backstage to perform in front of judges who
may determine the fate of their careers. Once a performer’s number and
name are called, they elegantly walk on stage under dramatic stage
lights as they prepare to start their routine.

In the darkness of the auditorium, the audience, the judges sit and wait.

“It feels like my skin is on fire and has ants all over it,” says
17-year-old performer Alicia Lucchesi. “And then I get on stage and it’s
still there, but the second I start moving, it’s like it disappears. I
come off and it feels like I’ve taken the first breath after a million
years of not breathing.”

As Lucchesi’s music begins, she rises on her toes and performs a solo
from “La Esmeralda.” Her striking red costume billows as she turns and
leaps through the classical ballet.

Lucchesi’s muscle memory kicks in as she’s been practicing for months
and waiting for this moment at the four-day Youth America Grand Prix
(YAGP) international student ballet scholarship competition.

“Freedom of the movement, but also the discipline of what’s right and
what’s wrong – it’s a consistency and that’s what I like about it,”
Lucchesi said.

Originally from Reno, Nevada, Lucchesi started dancing around the age
of 3 or 4. She didn’t always love ballet and the discipline that came
with it, but, “One day I woke up and I just didn’t want to do anything
else,” she said. “I don’t know when that click happened, but all I
wanted to do was dance.”

Lucchesi started coming to the Phoenix area for specialized training
programs until she eventually convinced her parents to move to the
Valley so she could dance at Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale.

She now is doing online school at Arizona Connections Academy and
dancing as much as possible. It’s a different experience than most

“I’m also missing those things like football games, basketball games,
dances, all sorts of stuff like that,” Lucchesi said. “But because I
know I’m being rewarded with the work that I’m doing, I don’t feel as
upset about those things anymore.”

All those hours of sacrifice are what led her and hundreds of other
dancers to the stage for the chance to earn a scholarship to fund their
dance journey.

YAGP is a New York-based nonprofit dance education organization that
supports aspiring dancers’ careers through scholarship opportunities to
dance schools worldwide. YAGP has helped dancers get more than $5
million in scholarships over 25 years.

Sergey Gordeev, founding director of external affairs and
institutional partnerships at YAGP, said the organization typically
hosts auditions at about 30 U.S. locations for dancers ages 9 to 19 each

YAGP came to Phoenix Feb. 8 through 11, and over four days, dozens of
dancers performed solo and group dances at the Orpheum Theatre in
Phoenix. Competitions included contemporary, classical and ensemble

Lucchesi competed in multiple categories, including solo and
ensemble. Each dance requires not only new choreography but also new
costumes, which can be costly.

Her father, Ben Lucchesi, said tutus for performances are usually
rented, which can cost about $300, and that doesn’t account for the cost
of pointe shoes, private lessons and other costs associated with dance.

“I think we’re spending upwards of $2,000 a month for regular
tuition” at the ballet academy, he said. “And then there’ll be
additional fees on top of that.”

The family understands that dancing at a high level is expensive,
which makes scholarship opportunities like the YAGP competition so

“It’s important to get scholarships because it helps support tuition
if you don’t have as much support from your family and such,” Alicia

Her father added scholarships help make a dance career possible.

“It really does make a difference for the parents because these kids
that are serious about dance and serious about making this as a career
path, they have to get this training while they’re young,” he said. “If
they don’t get this training when they are young, then a career is
simply not a possibility for them in the future. ”

For high school senior Elizabeth Pouliot, 17, it’s more about the
competition and potential to be invited to finals to end the season.

She doesn’t think she wants to pursue a professional career in ballet, and wants to go to college for a business degree.

“Even though I might not pursue dance, I want that to be part of my
life forever,” Pouliout said, noting this is probably her last YAGP

In April, the top dancers are invited to the YAGP finals, which are
streamed and observed by representatives and directors of dance schools
around the world. The finals are where the bulk of the scholarships are
given out, though they are also awarded on a rolling basis throughout
the season.

There are different levels of scholarships at each school and schools consider the financial need of students.

“We haven’t received any scholarships, actually,” George Pouliot,
Elizabeth’s father, said. “Most dancers do not receive any. Very few get

In addition to thousands of dollars a year in tuition, Elizabeth’s
pointe shoes cost more than $100 and may only last her 72 hours.

“Scholarships would be a very beneficial thing for lots of ballet
dancers just because there’s lots of expenses you have to pay out of
your pocket that people may not realize,” George Pouliot said.

The sacrifices dancers make aren’t always financial.

Tyler Cohen, 18, said the biggest sacrifice he makes is time because
he trains five to six hours a day. Being homeschooled helps him focus on

A scholarship would show his hard work has paid off.

“It helps a lot of people who don’t have as much money, like me,” he
said, noting that beyond the money, the event also builds relationships.
“It’s not mean competition. Everybody is supporting everybody.”

Gordeev knows that for so many people this competition will impact them for the rest of their lives.

“In these 25 years, what strikes me again and again is just how much
it changes the life of a person,” Gordeev said of the scholarship

Lucchesi concluded her performance with a bow and walked offstage.
She said the competition gives her exposure, especially through social
media. And while she would love a scholarship, she understands there are
many talented dancers.

“There’s a lot of dancers that deserve it,” she said.

Even if she doesn’t get a scholarship, she will keep dancing,
practicing her pirouettes and fouettés, dazzling audiences and making
financial sacrifices because being a professional dancer would mean

“Dancing has been my life for my whole life so that would mean a lot if I got to do that.”