Paloma Paulin, 13, knew little about ballet until taking a three-week introductory course at Cardinal Valley Elementary School in 2005.
She has come a long way since then: Now an eighth-grader at Lexington's School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she will dance the lead role in the Bluegrass Youth Ballet's signature ballet, Dia de los Muertos, at the Lexington Opera House on Wednesday night.
Paloma said she was surprised and thrilled to get the part — her first opportunity to be in a "big" ballet — particularly because she almost didn't even try out.
Paloma, who is "shy," according to Youth Ballet director Adalhi Corn, said she really didn't want to audition for a part.
"I just came because one of my teachers told me that I had to come," she said. "But once I actually started auditioning, I thought, 'This isn't so bad.' And then, when I actually got the role, I was really, really happy."
In the ballet, Paloma will portray Estelita, a Mexican farm girl who slips away from her work in the field to play and is bitten by a poisonous snake. The girl dies, becomes an angel and returns, invisible, to dance with her mother one last time.
"It's both a happy story and a sad story," Paloma says.
Corn, the Youth Ballet director, said Paloma immediately caught her eye during the summer ballet course at Cardinal Valley four years ago. Paloma was 9 then.
"She was very well coordinated," Corn said. "But her way of dancing was not what you normally see in young children who copy what they have seen. Her dancing seemed to come from within. She needed to learn technique, but the facility was already there."
Corn approached Paloma's mom, Cecilia Paulin, about having Paloma become a student at Bluegrass Youth Ballet. But Cecilia Paulin said the family simply didn't have the money. Paloma's father, Jorge Paulin, drives a school bus.
Unwilling to give up and wanting to reach out to Lexington's Latino community, Corn arranged for Paloma's parents to do some part-time work for the Youth Ballet in lieu of tuition, so Paloma could continue studying. Now, all the hard work she has put in during the past four years has paid off.
"When we had the auditions for Estelita, it was clear to me that she was right for the role," Corn said.
There's also a family connection with the role — Paloma was born in California, but her mother is from the area in Mexico where the ballet is set.