Amanda Whites is in familiar territory. Beneath the flicker of fluorescent lights at CulturArte, she steps through her solo for The Nutcracker, one eye on the full-length mirrors that line the back wall, one on her instructor, Bluegrass Youth Ballet founder and director Adalhi Aranda Corn.
But this Sunday afternoon practice isn't routine for Whites. It's a homecoming.
The 22-year-old is now a professional dancer with Dance Theatre of Tennessee in Nashville. She will tack her performance as the Sugarplum Fairy in BYB's signature show, The Nutcracker in One Act, to the end of a grueling schedule of Nutcracker performances for Dance Theatre in which she dances the Snow Queen, Dew Drop Fairy, the Arabian dance and plays a party parent.
"It's nice," Whites says, taking a break from rehearsal. "I feel like I'm moving up through the ranks, again."
She first did that at Bluegrass Youth Ballet, a company she joined after meeting Corn when Corn was leading a summer program for Kentucky Ballet Theatre. When Whites' family moved from Eastern Kentucky to Frankfort, she wanted to join the company Corn was directing.
"BYB was the place where I always felt supported and loved and challenged," Whites says. "It was really strict classes and great training, but even more than that, I felt comfortable, wanted, loved and valued as a person."
It's a place she is happy to come back to.
Corn acknowledges she had pursued other ideas for Sugarplum, wanting to save alumni performances for next year, when the company celebrates its 10th anniversary. But as other plans fell through, she sent Whites a message on Facebook about doing the show.
Corn says it is a nice opportunity for BYB students to see and work with an alumna who has fulfilled the dream of becoming a professional dancer.
"The moment that I told my students — some of them remember her and some of them know her — they were so excited," Corn says. "It immediately felt like, 'Why didn't I think of this before?' This is perfect.
"It's like coming full circle, and students see her and think, 'Ah, it is possible.'"
Though it isn't easy, as Whites can testify.
Dance is widely viewed as the hardest arts discipline in which to get a performing job. So it was a bold step when Whites declared she was going to forgo college to attend the prestigious Pittsburgh Ballet School, where she trained until it was time to start looking for work.
"It was particularly hard when I started auditioning, because the recession had just started, and companies were downsizing," Whites says.
In 2009, she reached a point where she came back home and was contemplating going to college.
Then Whites' father saw the listing for auditions at Dance Theatre of Tennessee, which was just launching, and got her to audition.
That first visit was a little scary; the company was in a temporary space while its main facility was being built. But Whites didn't know that.
"I show up to this tiny studio that's probably a quarter the size of this room," Whites says, surveying the stage-size BYB studio. "There were two other dancers, and I was like, 'What am I doing here?'"
She did the audition and really liked the class and the directors. But there was that dinky space. Whites was offered a position and said she'd think about it. Then company director Christopher Mohnani said, "Do you want to tour our actual facility?"
"Aaaactual facility?" Whites recalls thinking. "Then he showed me these giant studios, dressing rooms, things you really need, and I thought, 'OK, this is a real company.'"
Whites says, "It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I'm in a place where I can grow, and I perform all the time, and it's exactly what I wanted."
But now, it's Christmastime, and even for a dancer, it's good to be home.