JACKSON, Miss. – On opening night of the USA International Ballet Competition, dancers from 23 nations dressed in Capezio warm-up suits rather than their usual tights and tutus march across the stage waving the flags of their native countries.

Their bodies are as toned as an Olympic athlete, their ballet slippers have long been broken in and they come from around the world with dreams of promenading their way toward a gold medal or perhaps a spot in a prestigious dance troupe.

The torch is lit, and the 2006 games begin.

This is the “Olympics” of ballet, where 98 young men and women with stars in their eyes come to fulfill a dream of making it big in the highly competitive world of dance. It is where careers are launched, hearts are broken and friendships that last a lifetime are often forged.

Some would say that Jackson, where Southern heritage is a centerpiece of the city’s culture, is an unlikely place to showcase ballet. But for more than 25 years, the city has hosted the competition founded by Thalia Mara, a Chicago-born ballet teacher and former professional dancer. Mara, who moved to Jackson in 1975 and died there in 2003, had a vision to infuse ballet into the culture of the Deep South. She believed the event would thrive in a small city that had less to offer culturally than Chicago or New York.

For two weeks every four years, dancers chosen from more than 300 applicants glide across the stage at Thalia Mara Hall downtown. Every pirouette or double cabriole has to be perfect, not only because a panel of 13 international judges is watching but because anyone could be in the packed audience – a scout for the American Ballet Theatre or a representative of the Joffrey Ballet.

“There are so many strong dancers here and we are all being judged by the highest standards,” said Melody Herrera, 22, who with her husband, Randy, 25, are soloists with the Houston Ballet. “I’ve learned so much about myself, what kind of dancer I am.”

As the Herreras learned, making it to the finals is reserved for the best of the best. Melody was eliminated in the first round.

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“This is where they get a taste of what it is all about,” said Garth Fagan, founder of and artistic director of Garth Fagan Dance, a renowned New York contemporary dance troupe that gave a public performance during the event.

“It is a comparative process. (Being eliminated) does not mean you can’t dance. It means that someone was better than you. There is potential on this stage for companies all over the world,” said Fagan. “My favorites are the Japanese dancers. They jump with passion and rehearse until they get every detail right and then they rehearse again.”

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Most of the dancers who make it to Jackson have trained for years. Once here, they participate in dance classes, attend guest lectures and rehearse. They live in International Village – the dormitories at Belhaven College. They eat meals together in the cafeteria and cheer each others’ performances, so loudly at times that they drown out the music.

But don’t let the camaraderie fool you. These are highly competitive dancers who want more than anything to take home a medal. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in two divisions – the junior division for dancers ages 15 to 18 and the senior division for ages 19 to 26. Winners also take home cash prizes of up to $8,000.

“These dancers are competing with the artistic level that was set before them by professionals such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jose Manuel Carreno,” said Sue Lobrano, executive director of the competition. “There is a major difference between our competition and the Olympics. The judges won’t award a gold medal if they don’t feel anyone deserves it. That happened in 2002.”

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Many former IBC dancers have gone on to perform with prestigious companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, the National Ballet of China and the San Francisco Ballet. Brooklyn Mack, a 19-year-old who grew up in rural Elgin, S.C., and now dances with the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, said he fell in love with dancing the first time he saw a ballet as a child.

“It was like a wisteria that wraps around and engulfs a tree. That’s what ballet did for me,” said Mack, who has won several international competitions and took home the IBC silver medal. “Before I knew it, it had engulfed me.”

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Like the Olympics, the IBC also has had to deal with defections. In 1982, a Chinese dancer walked out of the back door of the theater after his performance and got into a waiting car that carried him to the consulate in New Orleans.

While defection has not been a concern since the end of the Cold War, terrorism is. As a precaution, 75 law enforcement officers were assigned to patrol the sites where the dancers live, rehearse and perform.

The first international ballet competition was held in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1964, and for years it rotated between Varna, Moscow and Tokyo. Mara founded the USA International Ballet Competition in 1979, recruiting Robert Joffrey, then-artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, to head the panel of judges.

In 1982, Congress passed a joint resolution designating Jackson as the official home of the International Ballet Competition. The competition, which ends this weekend with a closing gala, has been an economic boon, generating $6.2 million for the state of Mississippi.

But for most of the dancers, none of that matters. Their only concern is what happens on stage.

Kim Ji A, a 17-year-old from Seoul, made it to the second round while dancing with an injured knee and ankle. But it was worth it, she said, just to be a part of the competition. “This is so amazing,” said the soloist with the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Ukraine. “Of course I wanted to win a prize but mostly I just want to dance.”



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AP-NY-07-01-06 1642EDT