They warmed up with a pair of portable metal rails, doing pirouettes and pliés on three travel mats made from a mixture of rubber and linoleum. And then, with an eager audience assembled by 2:30 Thursday afternoon, students from the Sarasota Ballet gave a performance that has been dancing through their heads for the past three months.
Come January, the half-dozen members of the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance will leap and spin on a real stage in Tampa at the Youth America Grand Prix, doing the same moves in the semifinals of one of the world's largest ballet competitions.
But at this moment, all that mattered to them was the make-shift stage in the Children's Auditorium and the small but enthusiastic crowd that had gathered for a special show - a 20-minute exhibition of classical ballet variations at All Children's Hospital arranged by the Sarasota/Manatee branch of the All Children's Hospital Guild.
The talented guests dazzled a handful of female patients who had arrived with parents and siblings, along with nurses, various staff from Child Life and the ACH Foundation and Guild Members. For patients who couldn't attend, the entire act was beamed into rooms throughout the building.
One of those watching intently from a bean-bag chair was Kaitlyn, a 13-year-old wearing a protective mask over her mouth and a sweatshirt hood pulled over her tousled brown hair. She savored the chance to leave her room and briefly forget about the genetic disease that brought her to All Children's. "It's really cool - it makes me feel like I'm not captive," she said with a laugh.
A fan of hip-hop dancing, Kaitlyn enjoyed seeing the complicated ballet moves up close - seated just several feet away from the swirl of impressive arabesques and pointe work. "Ballet looks fun but I probably wouldn't be able to do it," she added.
But she did give it a try along with a few other girls, donning one of the $2,000 professional tutus the troupe had brought along for an interactive event with the kids at the conclusion of the performance - learning some basic warm-up drills and getting to mingle and pose for photos with the dancers.
For the students, ranging in age from 10 to 17, the show marked the first time they had publicly performed the short variations from such shows as White Swan, Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire. And they couldn't have been happier to be doing it at All Children's - and for children whose spirits were in need of a boost.
"My brother was here for open-heart surgery years ago and I have a friend who was here a few years ago," said Caitlyn Gish, 14, who performed a solo number as well as a dazzling Corsaire Pas de Deux finale with 17-year-old Yamil Maldonado. "So it really means a lot to be here. It feels good to try to help the kids feel better."
"The kids must really get down in the dumps so it's nice to be part of something that can cheer them up," added dancer Courtney Joseph, 12.
The sentiment was echoed by Shannon Colborn, a development officer in the All Children's Hospital Foundation, who helped bring the dancers to ACH.
"The neat thing was seeing the faces of our patients and how much they love having this performance brought to them," she said. "When you're having a hard time, you need to be inspired and you need to have a dream - something that can provide that little bit of inspiration to have a reason to fight harder to get out of here. And it's a wonderful way for the dancers to give back, too."
Welcoming the Sarasota Ballet is another way for All Children's to spread its mission and message to other parts of the region. In addition, the relationship will help raise funds for the hospital and increase awareness of ACH's work - with a March 4 performance at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota benefiting the All Children's Hospital Guild.
The groundwork for Thursday's event was laid by several Guild Members who also serve as volunteers with the Sarasota Ballet: Kay Aidlin, president of the Sarasota/Manatee branch, and Lydia Landa, treasurer of the Guild Council.
In April, Sarasota Ballet director Iann Webb and managing director Mary Anne Servian floated the idea of a performance at the hospital. Lydia put them in touch with Shannon to keep the process moving forward. And ballet management followed with a visit to ACH to work out the logistics, and it all came together Thursday with wonderful results.
"Our students have been talking about it for the last few months," said Dex Honea, Director of the Sarasota Ballet School. "We're very excited to be here performing for the kids."
The professional wing of the Sarasota Ballet will back in town on Dec. 21 and 22, performing Ringling's Circus Nutcracker at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. But for holiday magic, it will be tough to top the spirit linking performers and patients on a memorable afternoon at All Children's.