(Nathan Sayers)

Gisele Bethea Is Soaring at American Ballet Theatre

Gisele Bethea stands in the center of a rehearsal studio at American Ballet Theatre's headquarters, breathing hard. The ABT apprentice (who was then a member of the ABT Studio Company) and her partner have just finished running a pas de deux from La Bayadère. With her impossibly long legs and regal bearing, Gisele makes a picture-perfect Gamzatti, the ballet's spurned princess. But while she executes the choreography beautifully, the good-natured dancer has a harder time capturing Gamzatti's devious personality. “Remember, she's not sweet," says ballet mistress Nancy Raffa. “She just came out of a big catfight!"

Gamzatti's nastiness may not come naturally to Gisele, but the character's drive and inner strength does. “Gisele is incredibly self-possessed," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of the ABT Studio Company. “She's extremely focused and motivated, but also gentle and kind. And she absolutely loves to dance."

This year marks a huge turning point for the 17-year-old prodigy. Born and raised in Mesa, AZ, Gisele studied for years at a local studio, opting to work one-on-one with her loyal coaches rather than moving to a big-name ballet school. Though she's won all kinds of competition titles, she's kept her ego in check, maintaining a healthy sense of perspective on the frequently crazy ballet world. Now, though, she's left her quiet, sheltered life in Mesa for bustling NYC and a spot in one of the world's most elite ballet companies. Is she ready for the challenge? “If I want to make it happen and trust my directors and coaches here," Gisele says, “I know I'll be able to succeed."

From Jazz Baby to Bunhead

Gisele wasn't always a ballet fanatic. She initially trained at Danceworks by Dannis, a local competition studio, and was more excited about jazz, contemporary and hip hop. At one point, she lost interest in dance altogether and quit for nine months. “But I was so sad," she says. “I missed it so much that I realized I needed to come back."

When she returned, she started ballet classes with Olga Tarasova, a strict Russian teacher. “She told me, 'You have a lot of potential, but you're going to have to work really hard,' " says Gisele, who credits Tarasova with giving her a strong technical foundation. Inspired, Gisele soon grew to love—and prefer—ballet. “I realized that if I wanted to pursue it seriously, I'd have to put in a lot of time and dedication," she says. “It wasn't just for fun anymore."

At age 12, Gisele enrolled at the Master Ballet Academy, a vigorous Vaganova-based school in Scottsdale run by Slawomir Wozniak and his wife, Irena. She began an intense training regimen that included private lessons on top of her regular classes. By eighth grade she was being homeschooled to accommodate her heavy dance schedule. Wozniak also started preparing his talented student for major ballet competitions. “I wanted to expose her to as many opportunities, people and audiences as possible," he says.

Nathan Sayers

With her superbly arched feet and sky-high extensions, Gisele generated a lot of buzz on the competition circuit. By age 14, she'd won top awards at Youth America Grand Prix, International Dance Festival Tanzolymp, the Beijing International Ballet Invitational for Dance Schools and the Moscow International Ballet Competition (where she was the youngest-ever competitor). “It was so exciting to travel all over the world," she says. “Before that, I knew nothing about other cultures and their appreciation for dance."

A Slow, Steady Road to ABT

Gisele first caught ABT's eye at the YAGP finals when she was 13. That year and the following year, she received scholarships to ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School summer intensive. Though she couldn't attend due to her busy competition schedule, JKO wasn't about to let her get away. After she declined the second time, the school invited her to take classes for two weeks during the academic year to see if she liked the program.

Gisele took them up on their offer in October 2013. The trip left a deep impression on her. “I loved the way they looked at you as a whole dancer," she says. “They were concerned with how you were doing as a person, how you coped with the stress." But as much as she admired JKO and ABT (“It's always been my dream company"), she wasn't ready to leave her family yet.

Nathan Sayers

Her star-crossed relationship with ABT was far from over. A year later, Gisele's performance at the prestigious USA IBC in Jackson, MI, earned her the gold medal—and a contract with ABT Studio Company. Despite her success, a part of her felt she was still too young, at 15, to leave home. “I knew this was an amazing opportunity, and I didn't want to lose it," she remembers. “I thought, 'The only way I'll know for sure is if I pray about it.' "

Gisele and her parents, who are devout Mormons, prayed together as a family and discussed her dilemma. “We decided that I needed to finish another year of school, solidify my relationships with my family and grow up a bit more," says Gisele. Telling ABT wasn't as scary as she feared: They offered her a standing invitation to join the following year. Surprised and relieved, Gisele spent the intervening months with her nose to the grindstone. “I had to train hard and fix some things before I left," she says. “Plus, there was a lot I didn't understand about the world yet. I needed to find out who I was not just as a dancer, but as a person."

Backstage at the 2014 USA IBC (Jim Lafferty, courtesy Gisele Bethea

Living the ABT Dream

All of Gisele's preparation paid off when she finally moved to NYC last September. As luck would have it, familiar faces were on hand to help her ease into her new surroundings: She lives with her mother's cousin in an apartment a few blocks from Lincoln Center. She remains deeply involved with her church, attending seminary class every morning in addition to Sunday services.

At ABT—where she was named a company apprentice in January—she adjusted to long days, high expectations and fierce competition. As a Studio Company member, her day started with a two-hour technique class, followed by additional classes and up to six hours of rehearsals; as an apprentice, her schedule is equally packed. Gisele admits that the style is slightly different from what she's used to, and that she's had to pace herself to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “Sometimes I'm really hard on myself, because I want everything to be perfect, especially now that I'm at ABT," she says. “But then I think, 'They're not giving me anything they don't already think I'm capable of.' "

With BFF Larisa Nugent (courtesy Gisele Bethea)

When Gisele isn't in the studio, you'll find her watching Netflix, cooking dinner or hanging out at her favorite smoothie place with one of her best friends, School of American Ballet student Larisa Nugent. “We met at YAGP, and we were going through the same journey, just at two different schools," Gisele says. (They even share wardrobes. That red velvet leotard Gisele is wearing in some of her DS photos? It's Larisa's!)

While there's no question that Gisele has big-time ambition, her ultimate goal, she says, is to be happy: “Even when I have bad days, I want to bring happiness to other people." That ability to maintain a positive perspective seems to be the key to her success. “Yes, she has the facility, but her mind is set up the right way to achieve any goal in her life," Wozniak says. “She was born to be a ballerina. Soon, the whole world will know her about her."

Family Matters

In the Bethea household, family is everything. In addition to her brothers J.D. and Josh, Gisele has a little sister, Cienne, who's forging her own dance path at the Master Ballet Academy. And while her mom and dad are unwavering in their support, they've also kept her grounded. “My parents have helped me to realize how to have humility and to be my own person," she says. “One of the reasons I think I've been able to succeed is because my home life was so stable."

Corps Support

One of Gisele's biggest role models is ABT corps member Scout Forsythe. “She's incredibly positive," Gisele says. “She's figured out how to maintain happiness in a stressful environment. I can ask her about anything company-related, and she's open to helping me understand."

Nathan Sayers

Fun Facts

Birthday: January 31, 1999

Dream roles: Aurora and (no surprise here) Giselle. “I like Kitri, too, but I'm not that sassy by nature, so it takes me longer to get into her character."

Secret talent:

“I love to sing! I sing in the church choir. I'm a second soprano."

Favorite book:

“I just finished Magic Study, from the Poison Study series. It's super- teenagery—so dramatic and romantic."

Extreme-sport hobbies: The Betheas are a “crazy outdoor family," says Gisele. On weekends you'll find them wakeboarding, tubing, surfing, motor biking in the desert sand dunes—even skiing. “My coaches weren't so happy to know about that last one."

Dance bag must-have: Perfume. “I switch it up all the time. Right now I'm wearing Kate Spade."

Dance idols: Iana Salenko, Sylvie Guillem and Lucia Lacarra

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