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Ballet dancers flow with the challenges of a pandemic | Kids Who Make San Antonio Great

The coronavirus tried to steal the stage from the Children's Ballet of San Antonio, but the young dancers continue to entertain and achieve global recognition.

SAN ANTONIO — Becoming a principal dancer is a common dream in ballet – but it isn't a goal on a hanger in the fitting room waiting to be slipped on by any dancer. As Lucy Hassmann says, it's a continuing journey.

"Like once you've reached a goal, you make another one, and you go for it," she said.

The 17-year-old ballerina started training with the founder and artistic director of the Children's Ballet of San Antonio (CBSA) when the doors opened in June 2015.

The award-winning dancer has logged roles in 22 CBSA productions. Hassmann is on the cusp of moving abroad to a traineeship program at Russia's prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

"I'm just very grateful that I do get to go somewhere," Hassmann said.

Her goal is to become a principal dancer someday. Learning under a former principal dancer from the National Ballet of Panama is a step in that direction.

"Teaching and dancing is like drinking a glass of water," Vanessa Bessler said. "It is like a part of my DNA."

Bessler said she began the ballet journey as a four-year-old and never looked back. The mother and business owner turned small dance classes into the Children's Ballet of San Antonio. The reach to cultivate talent begins early.

"We start training – a year and half with 'mommy and me' training," Bessler said.

Character, drive, mind-muscle and a natural gift are things she looks for and develops.

"There's no words to explain that transformation from cocoon to butterflies," she said.

Kate Thomas is one of her butterflies. Thomas started recreational ballet at three. At age seven, Thomas said her love for the art of ballet became significant.

"Ballet takes a lot of sacrifice," she said. "So, to make the sacrifices, you have to absolutely love it."

Arabela Alvarado is a butterfly, too.

"I would say I'm willing to miss whatever I have," Alvarado said. "Just so I can dance ballet."

The 12-year-old said her love of ballet is nearly unexplainable. She's still working on her jumps, but that hasn't dimmed her attraction to the stage.

"Before I go on stage, I pray a couple of times," she said. "I get very nervous. But the moment that I get on stage, it all goes away."

Bessler works with males and females in the CBSA. Her students have gone on to dance with ballet companies across the globe. Scholarship opportunities pour in. 

She's a mothering figure who nurtures the dancers to those achievements.

"They usually come with some strong gift, but some challenges that we have to work on."

No challenge for the dance company has been more formidable than COVID-19.

Thomas dreamed and practiced to compete in Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland. Due to the pandemic, she could not travel for the week-long competition. 

The Alamo Heights High School teen auditioned virtually to get accepted to a solid resume-building event for pursuing ballet professionally. She competed against 400 of the top dancers from 43 countries.

"I was very surprised when I got accepted because I didn't really believe that I got accepted," Thomas said.

COVID-19 also postponed her invitation to attend the Royal Ballet of London.

Alvarado got accepted into the Royal Ballet too and the Paris Opera Ballet School in Paris. She's already attended a two-week summer intensive in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2019.

She learned in the pandemic that the show can truly go on.

"One time, I did have to perform without an audience," she said. "But even just looking at the seats, it just feels so magical."

Hassmann is wrapping up her time with the CBSA. 

She is training in a pre-professional program with Bessler's Dance Center of San Antonio as she waits to see if COVID-19 will prevent her from going to Russia in September. It stole her Paris Ballet opportunity in the summer of 2020.

Her commitment remains to succeeding in the competitive world of ballet.

"It's not always, you know, sparkly tutus and crowns," Hassmann said. "It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears."