Standing tall on her tiptoes, her hand resting gently on the ballet bar, Bella Morton watched herself in the mirror of the ballet studio. A striking figure of poise and composure against the backdrop of frosted glass windows at the front of the room, she eyed herself critically from head to toe, making ever-so-slight adjustments to her posture and form as she waited for instructions from her teacher, Ginger Grogan.
Music soon filled the room, and as Bella rehearsed a solo in preparation for an upcoming competition in Orlando — a piece she described as “sorta dark” — her face reflected only the seriousness she was trying to exude. (She’d go on to earn a top 10 spot in that national competition, by the way, among a cohort of nearly 400 dancers.)
Once the music stopped, however, Bella’s toothy, playful grins returned.
At 12 years old, the Mechanicsville tween is about to embark on the biggest dancing adventure of her young life, and if there are frazzled nerves behind her steely concentration, you’d never know it.
Her mom, Megan Morton, on the other hand, well, her nerves are raw and right there on her sleeve.
Bella has been chosen to portray Clara (of “Nutcracker” fame) in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in New York City this winter, where she’ll be sharing the stage with the legendary Radio City Rockettes. She’s one of three Claras for the show, which runs up to six times a day from Nov. 10 through Jan. 1, 2018. She and her mother will move to the Big Apple in the fall while Bella rehearses and performs.
For the home-schooled girl who’s been winning dance competitions all over the country since she was about 7 years old, Radio City Music Hall is a dream come true. But it’s not an opportunity that’s been handed to her or simply fallen in her lap. Behind all of the prestige of performing at one of the world’s most-recognized venues is a family (Megan Morton and Bobbie Morton, Bella’s grandma, affectionately known as “Gaga”) that has sacrificed more time, money and patience than its members care to recall, and a tween who’s pushed herself — body and soul — to the limits.
And they couldn’t be more ready for their next adventure.
Bella’s home away from home is The Dance Company in Mechanicsville, a studio that’s worked with her since age 4.
She studies under the direction of Grogan, her ballet teacher since last year, though it’s artistic director Glenda Sink who’s taught her since age 4 in everything from tap and jazz to contemporary dance. The company follows the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training curriculum, and Bella takes both group classes and private lessons. She averages at least 15 hours a week there.
Megan Morton said she put Bella into a variety of activities as a toddler and preschooler — dance, gymnastics, piano and swimming — but dancing is where her daughter shined. By the time Bella was about 7 years old, she was old enough to tell her mother that dancing was the only thing she wanted to do. From there, a few dance classes morphed into solo dancing competitions, conventions and way more lessons.
And Bella won those competitions — a lot. She earned dancer of the year in 2015 during the Hollywood Vibe Dance Competition and Convention. Her win earned her a spot on the 2016 Hollywood Vibe tour, which traveled to four cities across the country and ended with a convention in Las Vegas. (Aside from competitions, Bella is also featured in a current commercial for a water park that opened earlier this summer in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.)
Megan Morton noted that Bella’s dance winnings often come with cash prizes and scholarships, and its those financial awards that help pay for the constant traveling.
“She definitely wins her way to all of these things,” she said. Bella takes dance workshops across the country from other well-respected instructors, such as Miami’s Francisco Gella, all the while keeping her rigorous training schedule at home with The Dance Company.
Sink, the artistic director, recalled a younger Bella, at age 4 and 5, who seemed hungry for more than just introductory dance lessons.
Bella “was more into the element of dance, not the games, (and) she wanted a little bit more seriousness, even at that age,” Sink said. Now, “I teach concepts to her that I learned in college.”
Sink said Bella “auditions fabulous and she’s great under pressure,” and for those who ask what it takes to reach this level, the answer is simple: hard work.
“The child works incredibly hard and the sacrifice that’s been made by Mom and (Bella) has been enormous,” she said. “This requires a definite individual drive.”
It was a birthday surprise like no other.
The bright lights of Broadway were on the minds of the Morton women back in June, as Bella and her mother traveled to Miami for yet another dance competition.
Bella had auditioned for the role of Clara in April, and the unknown decision about her fate had put them on pins and needles ever since.
So as Megan Morton hung out at a Miami hotel by herself while her daughter danced nearby, she got a call with a New York area code on her cellphone. Her heart dropped.
Upon hearing the voice on the other end asking her if Bella would accept the role of Clara, “I just screamed and screamed,” Morton said.
In a sweet twist, Bella’s 12th birthday was the next day.
“I was so shocked — I keep pinching myself every day,” Bella said about being chosen. The road to this point hasn’t been easy, Megan Morton admits, but completely worth it.
“It’s a lot of lows and highs, a lot of tears, sometimes rejection (and) days when you think you’ve lost all your skills,” Megan Morton said.
Bella, on the other hand, can almost feel the heat from the stage lights of Radio City Music Hall — not that she’s slowing down between now and then to prepare. She was at DancerPalooza in Long Beach, Calif., recently, and is currently in Dallas on scholarship with The Dallas Conservatory. Then she heads to Arizona’s Master Ballet Academy in a few weeks before attending the Preprofessional Dancer Institute — again, on scholarship — in Santa Fe, N.M.
But New York City looms.
Grinning, Bella said, “I just want to go there already.”