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Ferndale ballet student raising funds to attend school in NYC

Published September 13, 2012

» click to enlarge «
Ferndale resident Mikaila Downing poses before a performance of “California Poppy” this past spring. Mikaila and her family are seeking the community’s help to raise the funds needed to send her to the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City.

FERNDALE — Ballet has been a huge part of Mikaila Downing’s world for nearly all of her life.

Mikaila, a 15-year-old junior at Ferndale High School, began taking ballet classes at age 3 and was already studying the craft seriously by the time she was 9. She currently dances five or six days per week at the Russian Ballet Academy in Oak Park, practicing an average of three hours per day under the guidance of instructor Tatiana Kitlak.

“I really appreciate the art form, and I like that it has always stayed really true to its history from when it first started,” Mikaila said. “I just think it’s really magical.”

All of Mikaila’s hard work and dedication appear to have paid off. She was recently accepted into the year-round dance program at the prestigious Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City, which is owned and operated by the famed 1970s-era ballerina. If all goes according to plan, she will move out to the Big Apple in October, where she will be dancing for several hours each day while completing her high school classes online.

“This is such a tremendous opportunity for her; it’s not the type of thing that comes along every day,” said Mikaila’s mother, Heather Downing. “She has really worked hard for this and endured some very intense training. For me, it was an excruciating process, but now I feel relieved. This really validates all the effort that she’s been putting in.”

Now the challenge for Mikaila and her family is coming up with the approximately $12,000 per year in tuition costs, as well as additional money for food, boarding and transportation. To help reach this goal, they have organized a fundraising campaign in the hope of generating $10,000 by Sept. 24.

Residents can contribute to the cause by purchasing Mikaila’s black-and-white charcoal portraits for $10 each, either online at her page under the name NetherDawn, or in person at Maria’s Front Room in downtown Ferndale. They can also make a donation directly to Mikaila’s Fund Web page.

“It’s going to be incredibly expensive to send Mikaila to New York,” Heather Downing said, “but we’re just hoping to raise enough money to get her through this first year.”

Even without the financial obstacles, getting accepted into the Gelsey Kirkland Academy was certainly a big enough challenge on its own. According to Diane di Stasio, director of special programs and registrar for the school, while the GKA does not have an especially aggressive recruiting strategy, it only admits about 60 students per year into its year-round program. These students come from all around the globe — including the U.S., Canada, Japan, China, France and Mexico — and range in age from about 14 to 24.

Most of these students are discovered, as Mikaila was, through the academy’s national audition tours. From there, only the best of the best are invited to join the program.

“We’re not one of those schools that tries to recruit as many students as possible,” di Stasio said. “We can be pretty selective because we know exactly what we’re looking for.”

What they’re looking for are dancers with strong body lines, a well-rounded skill set, tremendous strength, and an unwavering passion and love for ballet. They also seek out students that have had a great deal of high-level training, which is essential to achieving the fluidity and coordination necessary to become an elite ballerina.

“If they haven’t had that, it can be really hard to fix their technique at this stage,” di Stasio explained.

Fortunately for Mikaila, she is far from lacking in rigorous formal training. Heather Downing attributed much of her daughter’s ballet success to her years spent working with Kitlak at the Russian Ballet Academy.

“None of this would have been possible without Tatiana,” she said.

Mikaila’s ultimate goal is to become a professional dancer for a ballet company, and she knows that the Gelsey Kirkland Academy may provide a direct path to her dream. While the thought of leaving her family and friends behind and moving to New York can be overwhelming, she believes that it will be a worthwhile sacrifice.

“I was really honored and delighted that I was accepted there, but it made me kind of nervous, too,” she admitted. “It’s a little scary to think about being away from home like that. That’s going to be the hardest part, but this is something that I really want to do with my life.”

To purchase some of Mikaila’s artwork, go to netherdawn. To make a donation to her FundRazr page, go to, click on Find and search for Mikaila.

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