At 16, native Utahn among world's best dancers

Published August 24, 2008 12:00 am
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Some dancers wait a lifetime to be named one of the best in the world. Sixteen-year-old Whitney Jensen will have a lifetime to enjoy that title.

Whitney recently won the top honor at the biannual Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria, one of the dance world's oldest and most prestigious contests. The Grand Prix has been awarded five times since the competition began in 1964; Whitney is the youngest dancer and first American to win the award.

"Whitney attended the Ballet West Academy when she was 11 and I saw immediately that she was so advanced for her age," said Ben Arnold, chairwoman of the ballet department at the University of Utah and former ballet mistress for Ballet West. "She has always shown an incredible ability to connect to the style of choreography when she was onstage and with her performance."

Whitney credits some of her ability to an early understanding that each dance has a story behind it. Originally from Park City, she began dancing at age 3, learning jazz and other styles before focusing on ballet when she was 8. Since then, she has won numerous top awards in competitions throughout America, as well as two stints dancing the role of Clara in Radio City Music Hall's annual production of "The Nutcracker." The international competition, in July, is just her latest achievement.

"I got really interested in ballet as a career when I was 10," Whitney said. "But my early training [in the other styles] really helped me. There are certain body movements you don't develop just as a ballet dancer, like the quickness of your feet I learned from hip-hop classes."

While her natural gifts as a dancer have helped her rise to the top of the dance world, her teachers say Whitney's determination and dedication was what sets her apart.

When she was 12, Whitney traveled to New York City from Utah every weekend for a year to train with Valentina Kozlova, a renowned teacher who had been a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Theater of Russia, one of the premier ballet companies in the world.

"I knew the girl was artistic," Kozlova said. "I saw there was something hidden inside. So we started [retraining] from the very beginning, even how to point her little pinky, because she did not have classical structure. But she was very quick, and as much as it was difficult for her, I saw she was determined and not afraid of anything. That's her talent. It is a great advantage."

Now living in New York City by herself - chaperoned by her sister and brother-in-law who live just five minutes away - Whitney plans to finish her last year at Kozlova's Dance Conservatory of New York and then possibly move to Budapest, where she has been offered a first soloist position with the Hungarian National Ballet.

"[Eventually] I want to tour as a guest artist," she said. "I think it's the most fulfilling to meet different cultures and people."

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