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Dancing on Dreams : The Music Center Spotlight Awards aim to encourage the performers and audiences of the future. At this year's competition, two young women give it their all.


Both dancers stretched their bodies and searched for the right thoughts to block out fear. The judges waited down the hall, ready to validate or reject. Months of hard work were about to boil down to minutes on the hard floor.

But this is the pressure Natalie Willes and Tiana Alvarez have sought since they were little girls. Now, as San Fernando Valley teen-agers hoping to join the best dance companies in the world, they were here for their first head-to-head competition against peers with the same aspirations. They knew they had talent--but how did they match up against everyone else?

Also at stake was financial support for their future. The two finalists in the fifth annual Music Center Spotlight Awards at Cal State Los Angeles on Sunday were guaranteed at least $2,500. The awards, for 14- to 18-year-old students from Southern California, features performers in ballet, pop vocals, classical instrumental music, jazz instrumental music, opera and jazz dance. With private sponsorship, the contest is designed to encourage young talent, who, in many cases, have suffered as a result of budget cuts in the arts.

"This is an attempt to seek out people who will someday be appearing on our stage," said A. J. Carothers, a member of the center's Fraternity of Friends. "We always are building bridges to the community to develop audiences for the future."

From a field of 140 in the jazz dance category, auditions narrowed the list to 26 in December and to 14 last month for Sunday's event. The dancers performed the same routine during each round.

Natalie and Tiana traveled different routes to the semifinals. Natalie took ballet classes at 3, and started to make it the focus of her life at 9. She has danced in national commercials, studied last summer with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe in New York and taught at the Carousel Dance Studio in West Hills, which is owned by her mother, Karen. She even dropped out of junior high school to enter a home study program so she could spend more time on her craft.

"I breathe dance," said Natalie, 16, of West Hills. "In the malls, down the street, anywhere, I love to dance. It was really stressful to do school and dance, and I didn't want to watch my grades drop. So this way I can do both."

Tiana, a Sylmar 17-year-old, didn't have the luxury of dancing at a family studio. She began classes at 4 and got serious before adolescence, although at 13 she interrupted her training for almost three years. Her parents' divorce sapped her desire.

"I just wasn't motivated," said Tiana, a senior at Van Nuys High School. "I still loved it, but I just couldn't do it."

Last summer, she got inspired again. She started classes five days a week at Moro Landis Studios in Studio City, and worked with coach Natasha Middleton, who had danced with Pacific Ballet Theatre.

It was Middleton who choreographed Tiana's routine for the Spotlight Awards. She sensed an innocent sensuality in her student, and conveyed it with a cabaret-style dance set to Joe Cocker's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," from the soundtrack of the steamy film "9 1/2 Weeks."

For extra flair, Middleton put a black hat on the teen-ager and gave her a chair to use as a prop. More important, she stressed facial expression.

"This dance is all about attitude," Middleton said. "She has to bring out that natural sensuality."

Besides mastering the high leg extensions and floor twists in her routine, Tiana learned how to keep her balance on the chair and artfully toss her black hat in the air and catch it. A week before the competition, she was worried.

"Ever since I fell in practice, I get a little scared when I get near the chair," she admitted. "And I hope I don't drop the hat."

Also a perfectionist, Natalie was equally concerned about her performance, particularly since she choreographed her own routine. She reworked key movements in the slow, lyrical dance up to the last day, accompanied by Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work."

"I'm the only person who knows what's best for me," Natalie said. "I chose lyrical jazz because that is what shows me off the best, and not many kids my age can do it that well."

The day before the competition, the 14 finalists came to Cal State L.A. for a training session with Rebecca Bobele, assistant dean of the dance school at CalArts. They learned a few new steps and got a chance to size up the competition.

Finally, it was Sunday. Time for them to dance.

Natalie went first and seemed to hit all the tough jumps and movements. Not surprisingly, she was not satisfied.

"It went OK, but I never think I do good," she said.

She also showed a little shrewdness.

"I kept looking at the lady who was smiling," she said, referring to dance educator Susan Cambigue-Tracey, one of the three judges. "She was a friendly face."

Tiana followed immediately. She was clearly nervous, but that didn't prevent her from handling the chair and hat without problems. She also unveiled a last-minute wardrobe change for her character: black fishnet stockings.

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