GULFPORT -- As the music started Thursday in the modern dance class at Island School of Performing Arts, assistant director Kristen Dixon gave her students two instructions -- their left hands were filled with helium and their right feet were pumped with lead.
The assignment was tricky: The teenagers were to make up their own choreography to convey floating and sinking at the same time. As they began moving, Dixon changed the rules.
"Now, the helium is slowly coming out of your arm," she told them. Then they were submerged in ice.
In the front of the class, 18-year-old Nyah Duckworth, in a pale-green leotard and black tights, let her hand flutter down across her chest as she threw herself across the floor, soundlessly landing in her next pose. Her body was fluid, her lines were strong. Watching her dance was entrancing.
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"I'm really comfortable with just moving and throwing my body all over the room and kind of make this beautiful, messy picture," she said after practice.
"Modern (dance) is my favorite because it's just's just a genre of dance that's very free," she said. "Anything you do, you can make it your own."
Duckworth has been in leotards in dance studios since she was 8 years old, and the Gulfport High senior, who maintains a superior grade-point average and is on the cheerleading squad, said she cannot imagine doing anything else than dancing.
Teachers, friends and counselors ask her what her plans are after school. She tells them she will dance. But what about after dance, they ask.
"For me, dance is life," she said. "If I can dance at 99 years old, 100 years old, that's what I want to do."
Gulfport to Philadelphia
Duckworth spent much of her senior year traveling to universities across the country, auditioning for dance programs in hopes of scoring an acceptance letter and scholarship.
"Nyah got accepted into 10 dance programs across the nation," ISPA director Casey Hild said.
The senior's top choice, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the No. 4 dance school in the nation, Hild said, and the acceptance rate is less than 20 percent.
Duckworth worked with Dixon and the ISPA dance instructors to choreograph a routine for auditions.
"I did a lot of movements with my hands," she said. "My hands were the things that were leading me in different places throughout the dance. For me, the dance was kind of this continuous movement, kind of how life is.
"My hands were keeping me going, even through the hard times. Life doesn't stop."
Duckworth and her mom, Shaquila Duckworth, flew to Philadelphia on Friday after school. She auditioned from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then the pair got on a train and went to New York City for a 6 p.m. audition.
"That was pretty stressful, going from one audition to another and keeping my energy up for the next audition and putting on a face so they wouldn't know I was really tired," she said.
Of all her auditions, she said, she felt most comfortable in Philadelphia. She was ecstatic to be offered a $16,000-per-year scholarship.
Japan back to Gulfport
When Duckworth was a freshman, she moved to Japan with her mother, a civilian worker for the military. Her father is active-duty military. She took dance at Footloose Studio in Japan, an American-style school, as well as a Japanese studio.
But after a year and a half, she wanted to progress further, and home was where her heart was.
She left her mom in Japan, returned to Gulfport and resumed classes at ISPA.
"It was really hard," she said. "I kind of had to make that decision on my own. I wanted to get back home so I could really, really concentrate on what I wanted to do, and that was dance."
She lived with an aunt. She missed her mom, but she said it made her more independent and responsible. She spent lots of time in the studio -- 10 hours a week or more -- and still does. Shaquila Duckworth did, however, come home for Nyah's senior year.
"I really wanted her to be here to see me really becoming a woman and doing my last high school moments," she said. "When she came back home, I was bawling and jumped on her. It was really emotional."
Dance education is much different than other athletic pursuits, she said. She and her mother spent money for trips around the country, hotels and application fees so she could take the stage.
"It's not as easy as a sport like basketball or football where they have scouts come and sit at their games and watch them," she said. "I have to go to these schools all around the world and go audition in a room with dancers that look just like me, and I have to make myself stand out in a way that they can see me. It's really hard. I have to go to them; they don't come to me."
What inspires her
Duckworth said her ISPA coaches are constantly helping her improve.
"They're amazing because they not only teach us dance here, they teach us life lessons on top of that," she said.
The tiniest dancers at ISPA, though, inspire her the most.
"The little girls that work so hard, I can see them in classes every day working. They inspire me every day," she said.
One of Duckworth's best friends and dance partners, Jenna Robinson, died April 4 after a long battle with epilepsy. Duckworth spoke emotionally about her, l as she remembered her friend.
"If she was here at this studio and had an episode, she would get through it and be back in the room," she said. "She didn't let her disability get in the way of what she wanted. I want to be like her."
Hild and Dixon aren't surprised Duckworth received a solid scholarship in Philadephia.
"We're unbelievably proud of her," Hild said. "We knew she was going to do something big."
"She has no fear," Dixon said. "She's not afraid to go out to California without her parents to try something out for a week. Any rejections she gets makes her fire that much stronger."