Plainville, Conn. — Norene Robinson remembers vividly the Hartford Ballet teacher's words that day two years ago: `I want your other daughter!' Described by Mrs. Robinson in tones of mock horror, the incident provokes a rich, rolling laughter of pride and joyful inevitability. After all, her oldest child, 21-year-old Rena, had started this way; now dance had taken over the girl's life, and she was living in Germany as a member of the Hamburg Ballet. So when the teacher asked for Risa, the Robinsons' second daughter, Norene was a little hesitant. She could just see herself reliving the whole strenuous process of turning her home into a support system for another talent pirouetting in their midst.
But Norene remembers other things -- like the time she went to Germany in the summer of 1984 to see Rena perform. ``After the ballet, the audience would not stop applauding,'' she recounted breathlessly, as she and Risa sat in their kitchen while Norene cooked dinner for five of her six children. ``They surrounded the bus which the company was boarding, still applauding. I just can't tell you ... it must have made them feel like all the struggle was worth it.''
When the teacher first saw Risa, Norene Robinson says, ``she could sense the potential from the body shape and maybe from the way she carried herself. I told the teacher that Risa really wasn't interested, but the teacher persisted, and finally I spoke to Risa.''
The girl herself -- a slender 12-year-old with a winning look of openness and humor on her attractive face -- admits, ``I didn't want to go at all. But my mother sort of forced me to. She said just to take it for the first few months, and if I really didn't like it, I didn't have to go on.''
For one thing, Risa was afraid everyone would be expecting an artistic success story like Rena's. And sure enough, ``People at the school always go, `Oh, you`re Rena's sister!''' says Risa. But it didn't take long before Risa started liking it, and today - two years later - having a prominent sister has turned out to be an asset rather than something to worry about.
``The company is small enough that they know everyone,'' Norene points out. ``They keep in touch with what's happening with Rena in Hamburg and put notices on the bulletin board when she's doing something. And I think Risa likes that. I don't know if I should tell this little story, but at one point Risa was even saying, `I'd love to get the part of Clara in ``The Nutcracker.'' Maybe they`ll let me do it, since I'm Rena's sister.'''
``You can get really tired after a class,'' Risa admits. ``Some of the combinations are hard. But you get to do more things. You get to perform a lot. You get your pictures taken and stuff.''
``I had Rena start very young,'' Norene says, ``when she was an only child, and long before she decided `this is what I want to do.' It was a form of recreation for her. But I didn't have the same need with Risa, because by that time there were already three children in the family....
``I probably wouldn't have introduced Risa to dance if it hadn't been for Rena; yet my feeling is that each child's talent is of a different nature. Whatever an individual child is doing, it should be appreciated.''
Has Norene found that such talents have a binding influence on her own family? ``Oh, wonderful!'' she exclaims. ``I think the kids put Rena on a kind of a pedestal. They all just love the fact that she's able to do this. And she's so wonderful to them. When she comes home, it's like, `I miss you. I love you all so much.' In the summer she takes the younger children to the park, to the beach, bakes cookies with them. It's just the way we are as a family.''
Rena's ballet story started when she was at home with her mother in Connecticut, while her father, Frank, now a retired Army officer, was stationed in Korea. Rena was a preschooler and Norene noticed a newspaper ad for something called ``Creative Moments.''
``There were no young children in the neighborhood,'' Norene says, ``so I decided to take her to this dance program to give her an opportunity to meet other children her age. She tended to be shy, rather quiet. I thought this would be a way she could express herself.''
The family had to move several times when the Army transferred her husband, but in 1976 they found themselves back in Connecticut, where Norene approached the Hartford Ballet school - still with no grand future in mind for Rena, then about 12 - but merely ``because she seemed to enjoy it.
``Well, Rena loved it, thoroughly loved it,'' Norene remembers. ``So we decided to go ahead with the professional program. But still, I didn't dream of her becoming a professional dancer, not at that time. She progressed to being an apprentice to the company when she was in the 12th grade, and also went to programs at the School of American Ballet in New York for two summers. And after a few years with the Hartford school, Rena was feeling as though this is what she wanted to do.
``She is a type of child that makes a commitment and really goes for it. She's a perfectionist and doesn't mind working hard. So that point I said, `Yes, I'll support you if this is what your desire is.'''
``Support'' was no idle word. It meant an almost all-out commitment on Norene's part: car-pooling, coordinating daily family business. Today, Risa's schedule calls for similar family dedication and compromises: ``Like one time my friend was having a birthday party, and I asked my Mom if I could skip ballet class just this one time to go,'' Risa recounts. ``When she said no, I was a little late for the party, but I still got to go to the last half of it.''
``I had two children'' during the course of Rena's studies, Norene says, ``and it probably wouldn't have worked if I'd had a job. I have seen other mothers who try to keep up with this demanding schedule and it's almost impossible. I have a degree in dental hygiene and used to work in that field, but having the children and taking care of them has been my priority, and I don't have a desire to go back to work.
``There are times when a talented child might be a little bit upset. Rena ... sometimes felt she was not doing well enough and moving fast enough. You always have to be there to talk to them, to be supportive and help them see the longer goal.''
Financial realism also plays a part. Both girls are academically advanced: Rena graduated valedictorian from her private school and Risa is currently in a talented-gifted program, having scored extremely high on math tests. Rena was able to get a scholarship for the private schooling that proved necessary to accommodate her ballet schedule. But ``that's still more money!'' laughs Norene, with another of her mock wide-eyed looks. ``The Army's good pension plan helps. Dad has to have the money for ballet shoes, tights, etc. You'd be surprised how fast they wear out.''
Looking back, Norene recalls saying to herself, ``They're girls in high school. Don't they want to be cheerleaders or something? And I would ask Rena about it. Rena would reply, `Like what? I'm doing what I want to do,' and shrug her shoulders as if to say, `Where else would anyone want to be but in the arts?''' Tomorrow: The Smiths of Norwood, Mass., raise two musicians and a dancer.