Back when Isaac Akiba used to play dodgeball with other kids in his working-class Boston neighborhood, he never imagined one day entering a world of tutus and pink slippers – let alone smiling about it.
But in a story propelled by philanthropy and boyish persistence, Mr. Akiba has not only become a dancer, he's also cracked the top echelons of American ballet.
At the opening weekend of "The Nutcracker" ballet in Boston this year, Akiba was one of many faces beaming amid the soft shuffling of Clara's party dress, the flourish of Drosselmeyer's cape, and the commotion of the Mouse King fighting the heroic Nutcracker.
When he leapt onto the stage in Cossack dress for the iconic Russian dance – bursting with unaffected joy and making only fleeting compromises with gravity – the applause crescendoed to a volume normally reserved for the Nutcracker himself.
Akiba's precision, grace, and dynamic power, showcased by one of America's top ballet companies, are remarkable by any measure. But the fact that he was found almost by accident as a third-grader makes his arc of success unique.
In 1997, the Boston Ballet's community outreach program, CityDance, tapped him for a 10-week scholarship; last year, he became the first participant to join the ballet's prestigious company. He has already performed roles normally reserved for veterans.
"He has had a very unprecedented start," says Boston Ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen.
Akiba's story, though exceptional, highlights the evolving mission of ballet outreach programs. From New York to San Francisco, ballet companies originally saw outreach as a way to diversify the face of ballet – both on stage and in the audience.
A handful of alumni have, like Akiba, gone on to a professional ballet career. But now such programs are seen more as a gift to the community, enriching budget-crunched public schools with arts education, and cultivating creativity and discipline in students who pursue everything from writing to law.
"We know that, on average, 1 in 100 ballet students become professional dancers," says Charles McNeal, director of education at the San Francisco Ballet. "I'm OK with that, because we are creating a society who loves and appreciates art."
In a corner studio of the Boston Ballet School, six boys – four of whom are CityDance alumni – vacillate between moments of supreme concentration and uncontrolled boyish energy, pulling on their spandex and pushing each other playfully. But when a Tchaikovsky march calls them to attention, they purse their lips in earnest focus, leather ballet shoes squeaking across the floor.
Their teacher, Andres Reyes, instructs them to wait for the right count. "Think about what you're going to do ahead of time," coaches Mr. Reyes, who says parents tell him how much they value this skill of concentration in a world of incessant stimulation.
Not so long ago, Akiba was a boy in these same studios – rowdy but "precociously athletic," says his mom.
But the Akibas let Isaac choose his own path, and by the time he became a teenager, he was the only one of his friends still dancing – drawn not least of all by his enjoyment in being surrounded by willowy girls.
Enter Franco De Vita, a strict teacher from Italy who prized focus above fun. He wanted his students at the barre promptly at 6 p.m., tights tucked into their shoes, shirts spotless. Akiba struggled under Mr. De Vita's firm hand.
"I think [De Vita] saw I had a lot of potential, but I wasn't putting my full attention to what I was doing," says Akiba, who recalls his frustrated teacher throwing ballet shoes at him and bringing him to tears. "He always liked me, and I liked him, that's why it always hurt so bad."
Akiba's former classmate Alejandro Diaz saw something more profound unfolding, however.
"Franco pushed him very hard because he knew how far Isaac was going to go – and he wanted to be part of that. He wanted to watch this boy, who was just a boy, grow into a dancer," says Mr. Diaz.
Just as the dancer began to blossom, however, De Vita left Boston for another job. The Italian says he still has the "beautiful" farewell note his 16-year-old protégé wrote – a sign of a gentle heart that has touched those close to Akiba.
Akiba may not have realized his passion for ballet if it hadn't been for his friends.
"The guy could turn like crazy," recalls Diaz, who, along with fellow classmate Luca Sbrizzi, often stayed until 9:30 or 10 p.m. to practice their pirouettes. "And we'd say, 'Hey, Isaac, come on!' We wanted to watch him turn; we wanted to try and do the same thing."
When a fierce snowstorm shut down the ballet school for a week, they bundled up in boots and jackets and imitated their favorite combinations in snowdrifts on the Boston Common.
By spring, Akiba had made such progress that he skipped a level and quickly rose through Boston Ballet's ranks – demonstrating a commitment to dance that led him to discontinue his schooling for junior year when his performing arts academy refused to accommodate the Ballet's demanding practice schedule.
"When the rose is fully bloomed, it's wonderful, fragrant," says Mr. Nissinen, who hired Akiba last year. "But when you recognize the rosebud that's just opening, there's something so different, so beautiful about it…. That's what I see in these young dancers; that's what they represent for me."
And what does dance represent for a society buffeted by tough economic conditions?
"If you look at difficult times in history – wars and famines and economic depression – people look to art for nourishment," says Boston Ballet School's director, Margaret Tracey. "I think that human beings are engineered with the need to have art in their lives. It is not a luxury but a necessity."
Indeed, outreach directors speak of the arts as a practical asset in an age demanding creative solutions.
"Rahm Emmanuel studied ballet!" exclaims Mr. McNeal, referring to President Obama's former chief of staff. "[He was] part of an historical administration, because this man had the power of the arts in his background – to perceive possibilities for how to be in the world."
When Akiba steps out on stage, however, he's more likely to be inspired by pure joy than the possibility of working at the White House someday.
If you go to see "The Nutcracker" this season, he advises, "Try to watch the dancer, in their face, and see if they're enjoying it."
Perhaps it is telling, then, that his wide grin subsided only when the dancing ended and he took a bow.