NEW YORK On Monday night, just before the trumpets heralded the start of the final gala of the New York City Dance Alliance's national championship, the girls of the Dance Club of Orem were bending themselves into funny groups, hips high, smiles stretched, as Allison Thornton, their teacher, snapped a dozen cameras in turn. It was a giggly beginning to the end of the nine-day competition, which part sleepover party, part "American Idol" had drawn 1,500 young dancers eager to test themselves on a New York stage.
The days most 12 hours and longer were filled with an unremitting sequence of dance classes, rehearsals and mock auditions.
At 8:17 Thursday morning, midway through the competition, the darkened grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, where the championship was held, already had a midnight feeling. Light spilled from the stage into a long, red-carpeted hallway, where Alexia Meyer, 10, sat quietly on the floor, her bouncy ringlets momentarily stilled.
Moments later, she was onstage doing her solo number, "I'm the Greatest Star." Despite the success of her split leaps, Alexia, who had awoken at 6, returned to the dressing area in tears, her small arms shaking. "They just put a lot on themselves and get really stressed," said Tatia Meyer, her mother.
Competition is part of the world of professional dance, and many dancers say that if properly channeled, it can be helpful. "My little edge of looking at someone and saying, 'I can do that,' is not negative," said Danny Tidwell, 20, a former alliance winner and now a corps de ballet dancer with American Ballet Theater. "It's exciting."
Harder than losing to others is constant competition with oneself; as a dancer, your greatest rival is your own unruly body.
"It's so hard to speak with your body," said Travis Wall, 17, Tidwell's brother, who has won top honors at the alliance twice. "That's what dancers do. We tell stories with our bodies, without using words. A simple look to the audience could communicate so much, just like a sentence."
But such soulfulness often took a back seat to virtuosity at the competition, where legs already fully extended were pulled higher, to achieve a hip-splitting distension. Kicks were slammed up, then slowly lowered. Turns happened fast and tight, like those of figure skaters.
On Sunday, the Dance Club of Orem won the National Mini Critics' Choice Award for its group number, "Numb," while back in Salt Lake City, a team member, Tori Schmanski, 14, the victim of a car crash, entered her third week in intensive care. Her prognosis remained unclear.
"We just hope and pray and keep the faith," her father, Tim Schmanski, said by phone.
At the final gala on Monday, the ballroom was packed to its high chandeliers.
After a big opening number for dancers in the teenage (13 to 15) and senior (16 to 18) categories, Joe Lanteri, the executive director of the alliance, took the stage. He stood in front of 134 young dancers, each of whom hoped to be chosen as national outstanding dancer and win, among other things, the honor of touring with the alliance for a year.
Lanteri, in black leather pants, his shoulder-length hair slicked back, stood before the sea of bare and anxious knees and read the names of the top three male and female dancers in the teenage and senior categories, who would rush backstage and put on their costumes for a final performance before the panel of 12 judges in the audience.
Allison Holker, 17, from the Orem club, was a senior finalist. "We've dedicated our New York trip to Tori," she said. "We pray for her before we go onstage."
At 10:40, she took the stage for her solo, an artful, aching piece about lost love that she had choreographed with her sister, Jessica Holker, 23, an alliance alum who now dances for Disney in Tokyo. Allison left the stage sweaty and exhilarated, having improvised the ending.
"When you go on that stage, there are so many people watching you, you just want to give them everything you have," she said. "You do what you feel."
Hogan Fulton, 10, from Bobbie's School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, Calif., was named outstanding dancer for boys from 7 to 10, and he gave the most rousing performance of the evening. Though only 4-foot-6, he took full possession of the stage and won a standing ovation for his rendition of "Hernando's Hideaway."
Near midnight came the last beauty-pageant moments, as the finalists joined hands and Lanteri read the names of the second runner-up and the first runner-up, with only Allison left standing. Shocked, she covered her face with her hands and took a deep bow.
"I'm overwhelmed," she said later. "I can't stop bawling. My mom is not here. I called her but I couldn't tell her, because I couldn't stop crying."
All around her, young dancers streamed off the stage and out of the ballroom, one step closer to a future that would or would not involve dance, some with the resigned valor of the defeated, others tearful, still others chanting, "Pizza party!" It was 12:32, and one had the sense that things were just beginning.