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Texan teen to become first American to graduate from premier Russian ballet school

When Joy Womack arrived at Moscow's elite Bolshoi Ballet Academy at 15, she spoke limited Russian and was one of a number of foreigners allowed to train at the school. Now 17, she is poised to become the first American to graduate from the Russian academy.

By Irina Tkachenko
NBC News

MOSCOW -- Like many of her high school peers in the U.S., Joy Womack keeps an Internet blog and chats with her family on Skype. The 17-year-old devours books on Kindle, listens to music and stresses about end-of-year exams. But this is where the similarities end.

By the end of May she will become the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, arguably the most enviable and demanding choreography school in the world.

Clad in jeans and a puffer jacket -- too skinny for this blustery Russian spring -- she looks impossibly delicate and long-limbed, even for a dancer, and speaks with sincerity, focus and poise that would be impressive in an adult. And if she is a tad nervous, small wonder. Having lived by herself for three years in Moscow, Russia, some 6,000 miles away from her home in Austin, Texas, Joy is preparing to take her final exams.  

“Nothing can compare to the rigor and the mental strength it takes to train at the top of our school,” Joy told NBC News.

Ballet dancers are never late bloomers. By age 15 Joy had already put away years of preparation in prestigious American ballet schools like the Austin School of Classical Ballet and Kirov Academy of Ballet, when she was hand-picked by the Bolshoi Ballet Academy teachers to train in the Russian dancers department for tuition of $18,000 a year. That in itself was a special and unusual honor since the academy has a separate course for foreign students.

Barely believing her luck -- after all, her love of ballet began with YouTube videos of Russian ballerinas -- Joy left her parents and siblings and boarded a plane for Moscow, in awe of the opportunity of a lifetime.  Little could have prepared her for the change she was about to make.

“When I first arrived here, nobody had heard of me. Everybody thought, ‘Here is this new American coming into the Russian class,’” she said. “I was put with the graduation class in repertoire ahead of the other girls in my class … that had created a lot of jealousy and a lot of questions.”

Joy, who did not speak Russian at the time, said she needed the instructors to repeat themselves again and again.

“It was hard the first six months, because the girls did not want to talk to me, did not want to be my friends,” she said.

A far cry from America

The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, also known in Russia as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, launched in the late 18th century on the order of Russian empress Catherine the Great. Originally conceived as an orphanage, the school has long since established itself as an institution and feeder school for the Bolshoi Ballet troupe, a premier training ground for classical Russian ballet dancers that emphasizes technique and artistic expression. It is rooted in structure and tradition that have outlasted political regimes and many a revolution.

For Joy, life at the academy quickly proved a far cry from her American routine.  Instruction exclusively in Russian all but assured a language and culture gap too big to tackle quickly. The school's focus on discipline meant dancing up to 10 hours a day, six days a week. It did not matter if you were hurting or sick: you showed up and you danced through the pain.

A measure of the school's ethos is its strict caps on the students' weight: 96 pounds for those who are 5'6", for instance. Ballerinas tipping the scale at 110 pounds are not allowed to participate in a duet class, but are required to observe it.  In a country that spends most of the year waiting for winter to pass, this schedule meant rarely seeing the light of day. In the middle of December in Moscow, the "day" lasts barely six hours.

Asked when she saw her family last, Joy paused before replying, “Ten months ago.” That was the only time her dad had been able to come.

Driven to dance

Then, of course, there were injuries. Joy had surgery on her foot. She broke her wrist. A torqued back once confined her to bed for two weeks, only to make her write in her WordPress blog.

"I feel miserable," she wrote, adding that she could not wait to get back to the studio.

When asked what keeps her going, Joy didn’t wait to consider the answer.

“In order to cope with my rigorous training schedule, my long days I mostly depend on good food and … really the knowledge that after I get through this, I’ll be able to take on anything,” she said. “Of course, there are always those hard moments, especially here in Russia, where in winter it’s really hard … It seems so difficult to keep going. In those moments I rely on God, I rely on Jesus.”

She does not mention passion. But then, you can see it in her dance.

To connect to the outside world and to hold herself "accountable" Joy answers dozens of queries from American fans on her blog. “What do you do not to lose trust in yourself when you think you're no good...?” asked one in an obvious moment of self-doubt.

And from across the Atlantic came the answer from Joy, meant, it seemed, as much for herself as for the person asking:

"Instead of getting upset or depressed if something does not go as you thought it would, God always opens another door. Even if it takes you awhile to find a light switch.”

Blood, sweat, tears, fatigue: 'it is worth it!'

Last December the Bolshoi Ballet Academy showed "La Fille Mal Gardee," one of its signature productions, on the venerable stage of the Bolshoi. It was pronounced best student show in the theatre and landed the school an award from the Russian government (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was on hand to honor the occasion). And Joy? She danced the lead. A month before she had won the "Youth America Grand Prix" in Paris. 

Today Joy speaks fluent and lively, if a bit accented, Russian. She treasures the bond she formed with her Russian ballet teachers and adores them for their "tough love" and dedication to her.  She has found her friends, though she once wrote the best one of them may still be the Internet.

Time is a precious commodity, and free time almost nonexistent. 

After she completes her state exams in all subjects: acting, classical ballet, character dance, and duet, Joy will dance in one final performance with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the lead in "Paquita." Then, after graduation in May, the nerve-wracking wait: will the Bolshoi come calling to invite her to its regular troupe? Joy will find out the answer having barely turned 18. 

"A dancer is honest with themselves and faces their flaws and imperfections in the mirror and chips away at them,” she wrote online. “Behind the love is blood, sweat, tears, stress, fatigue! But it is worth it!"