HAMILTON — It was a trip backstage that brought ballet into Mauriana Jessop’s life.

“It is kind of an odd story,” Jessop said as her students gathered in the waiting room. “My sister was in ballet at the time and I went to help out backstage.”

Back then, she watched the young girls seemingly float across the stage in a graceful leaps, and stand with such beautiful poise.

“I just fell in love with ballet right then,” she said. “I saw all the fun they were having.”

For the next 14 years, she dedicated herself to dance and performed on regular basis throughout the Bitterroot and beyond.

She found that ballet gave her the confidence, discipline and grace that helped her meet the challenges that come in everyone’s life. And so, four years ago, when the owners of Ballet Bitterroot Dance Academy in Hamilton asked her if she would be interested in teaching what she’s learned to a brand-new generation of tiny dancers, Jessop leaped at the opportunity.

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On this early evening, a small excited group of 5- and 6-year-olds are standing still in a line at the reception room door.

Their eyes are fixed on the heavy makeup that Jessop has used to accentuate her eyes in preparation for a competition coming up this weekend in Idaho.

“I don’t usually look like this,” she said, with a smile as she walked away to greet her students.

Kindly, she reminds her class to stand straight and bring up their chins as they head single-file into in the dance studio, with its padded floor, and lined with mirrors.

For the first few minutes, they all gather 'round in a circle as they stretch in preparation for the plies and positions they’ll practice this night.

“I love working with these little kids,” she says. “Their faces light up. It’s all about fun for them. It’s fun to dance.”

After the stretching is done, the girls form a line and then do their best to copy Jessop’s every move.

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For some, ballet has been part of their lives for probably as long as they can remember. Ballet Bitterroot offers classes for 2- and 3-year-olds.

“Once they are potty-trained, they’re ready,” Jessop said. “At that early age, we learn just the very, very basics. It’s more about developing coordination. Standing on one foot, raising a leg to the side, jumping from one foot to two.”

Starting early has its advantages.

“For a lot of these girls, by the time they are 6, they’ve had four years of experience,” Jessop said. “They are moving along pretty fast at that point.”

There’s no telling where the experience might lead.

“When I was dancing, I danced with a boy who ended up going professional,” she said. “He danced in New York City. You never know. The person standing next to you could someday become famous.”

Even if fame isn’t in their future, Jessop is convinced that her young students can learn lessons that will help them throughout their lives.

“The amount of discipline and commitment that you give to dance will play out in your life,” she said. “Whether it’s finding a job or your studies in school, dance teaches you commitment. It shows you how to focus on something and strive to always be better.”

But all the practice pales for these young dancers when it comes time to step out under the bright lights and perform.

“Performances are always their favorites,” she said. “You get to go out on stage and show everyone what you’ve learned. You get to wear makeup and have your hair done up beautifully.”

“You train for months and then it all comes down to two minutes on stage,” Jessop said. “You really see their faces light up when they step out there and see everyone looking back up at them.”

Ballet Bitterroot Dance Academy’s next performance is set for May 27 and 28 at the Mary Rogers Performing Arts Center in Victor.

“We are going to perform Dr. Seuss,” Jessop said. “It’s going to be very colorful and very fun. Everything will be upbeat and happy. It will be whimsical.”

The ballet is brand-new. Anyone wanting to learn more about the academy or upcoming performance can call 406-961-1818 or go online to balletbitterroot.com.

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