OREM Seven-year-old Alina Flint already knows exactly what she plans to do with the rest of her life.
"I want to be a professional dancer," she said without hesitation as she packed up her ballet slippers after class at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio last week.
Flint certainly isn't the first toe tapper to get stars in her eyes, but at Center Stage, instructors don't just smile patronizingly. They take it seriously when a little performer dreams of making a career in the arts.
"We've cracked the code here," said Alex Murillo, co-owner and founder of the studio. "We know how to make world-class performers."
He's not kidding: Within the past couple of years the Orem studio has turned out more than a dozen reality television stars, including two-time "Dancing with the Stars" winner Julianne Hough and current "Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann" finalist Zack Wilson. A number of the studio's dancers also have won principal parts in Disney and MTV movies. And, although studio owners kept names mum, they said more than half a dozen of their students were selected last week to move on to the next stage of auditions for Fox's hit television series, "So You Think You Can Dance."
When asked why this little eight-room studio in a city that could be considered the antithesis of Hollywood seems to be popping out so many success stories, many former students had to shrug.
"Maybe it's something in the water," one alumnus mused.
Others hypothesized that it could be a result of the prevalent regional influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which emphasizes clean living, hard work and the development of talents.
But even though it may seem as if the studio has discovered a conveyer belt that leads to fame and fortune, Kim Del Grosso, co-owner and artistic director for the studio, maintained that Center Stage's success isn't a matter of chance. There is a tried and true formula for molding ordinary performers into stars, she said. Center Stage has simply worked out the kinks.
Its method goes something like this: practice, practice, practice.
Oh, and Del Grosso added, it helps to have good connections in the entertainment industry.
"The most important part of a performance happens behind the scenes," Del Grosso said. "I tell my kids: If you blow the journey, it doesn't matter where you end up."
It's the polish that comes from hours of rehearsal that sets Center Stage dancers apart, said Randy Boothe, an arts professional who regularly runs across the studio's performers during the auditions he oversees for Broadway, Disney and Brigham Young University.
"After spending hours in auditions watching people only a mother can love, you can imagine what a treat it is to see someone who's really got it together," Boothe said. "But it's no secret how they get that way. If a student is serious and training at Center Stage, they're not just going to class Tuesday and Thursdays for an hour and a half."
Studio owners compared dance training for 12-year-olds at Center Stage to the rigors of a college education. Children trade their math and English textbooks in for ballroom pumps and jazz sneakers.
The studio has even made arrangements with local schools so dancers can earn internship credit for rehearsal time.
Coaching starts young, too. Summer Flaherty's three children, ranging from 5 to 8, are already spending between 10 and 15 hours on the dance floor each week. To develop talent, one must sacrifice time, said the 31-year-old Saratoga Springs mother, as she waited for her youngsters to finish up jazz class.
"I want them to have a sport they feel confident about doing," she said. "Then when they're teenagers it'll keep them busy and out of trouble."
By the time he reached his teens, Italo Elgueta, now 19, was putting in a sweaty nine hours a day at Center Stage. He's since landed a part in a Kylie Minogue video and a job teaching cardio ballroom to celebrities in Los Angeles.
"Success in the dance world isn't about talent as much as it is about discipline," he said. "It's so hard sometimes to be here all day long, spending lots of times more than an hour on one step just trying to figure out where your hips are or where your toes need to go."
For a good number of performers, "Center Stage is home," Elgueta said. Students' after-school lives can be summed up by rifling through their dance bags.
Ashly Del Grosso-Costa, Kim Del Grosso's daughter, certainly felt that way.
"My schedule was so crazy," she said. "I didn't have a high school life. I didn't have a social life. I was always dancing."
But when the ballroom dance champion received a phone call from ABC asking her to audition for the first season of "Dancing with the Stars," she said she didn't regret a minute of rehearsal. Now the dancer has three seasons and a third-place title on the show under her belt.
It's the hope of a similar big break that keeps young performers inspired through hours of jazz, contemporary, ballet, hip hop and ballroom classes. Most of the "Center Stage Stars," as owner Alex Murillo fondly calls his growing list of television prodigies, cross-trained in multiple forms of dance, as well as attending singing and acting lessons at the studio.
Before Hefa Tuita, 16, came to Center Stage, he considered himself a hip-hop dancer. But now the Spanish Fork teen is pretty confident he can handle "whatever gets thrown out there" at an audition.
Tuita, who recently landed a big role in a new Nickelodeon series, especially appreciated the fact that instructors at Center Stage taught him how to dance "powerful like a man." The studio, which is well known in the community for training an unusual number of boys, puts a unique stress on partner dancing. Because many Broadway and television shows use dance to illustrate the interaction between men and women, experienced partner-dancers have an edge.
"At first I thought they were crazy for making me study all this extra stuff at the studio," Tuita said. "But my versatility has really put me five steps ahead of the competition."
Studio owners take developing talent personally. They regularly fly in top industry professionals to work with performers and occasionally cart children around the country for extra coaching. When a potential star runs out of money, studio owners allow them to teach classes in exchange for lessons or grant them scholarships.
"Kim (Del Grosso) is like my second mom," Tuita said. "She used to take me everywhere to ballroom competitions or wherever I wanted to go. She treated me like one of her kids."
So far, Center Stage alumni have remembered their roots, even after the spotlights started shining in their eyes.
Jason Celaya, 29, who studied at Center Stage before moving on to Broadway and securing a finalist spot in NBC's song-and-dance talent competition, "Grease You're The One That I Want," has now become one of the studio's visiting teachers.
"The studio's reputation got jump-started by a couple of dancers and performers and now everyone sees it as possible to make it on television," Celaya said. "Every performer there believes they can work professionally. They no longer have mental limits."
The more performers find success, the more connections the studio builds in the entertainment industry.
Since Ashly Del Grosso-Costa first appeared on "Dancing with the Stars," her mother has visited the set almost monthly, mixing with some big names in television production. Casting agents have now started approaching Center Stage about auditions."It's as if the nation is just starved for the arts right now," Kim Del Grosso said. "I never saw this coming, but we're on top of this wave, and we're gong to ride it as much as we can."
E-mail: [email protected]