Searching for Downtown Prodigies: The Turning Point for Jesse Manning

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By Beth Mellow

Almost three years ago, 14-year-old Jesse Manning moved to New York City with no family and the chance to pursue his passion: ballet. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Manning studied at the School of American Ballet near Lincoln Center for a summer as a young teen. The school was so impressed with him that he was invited to continue his study full-time.

Manning, now 17, made the move alone from the Sunshine State to the Big Apple. Until last year he lived in a dormitory at the school; his parents have recently joined him and the Manning clan now lives in the Financial District.

Starting his freshman year of high school in a new city without the presence of his mother and father was understandably challenging. "It was really overwhelming when I first moved here for a number of reasons. I was homeschooled in Florida for 7th and 8th grades, so I had to get used to going to school again as well as the increased workload. I was also pretty homesick because I wasn't living with my parents. Eventually I got used to it. It wasn't easy, but it was good because I grew up really fast."

In the world of dance, the School of American Ballet is known as one of the most rigorous training programs in the country. It is regarded as a feeder school for the New York City Ballet, but even those students who don't make it into the prestigious company generally end up performing with other top ballet troupes. Manning dances at the school six days a week, three hours a day and his coursework includes everything from technical ballet instruction to weight training.

He has also performed with the New York City Ballet as an extra in a few of their productions, including Firebird and Vienna Waltzes. In addition, he is a student at the Professional Children's School, which affords him the time and flexibility to pursue dance.

When asked where this passion stems from, Manning said ballet is in his blood: "My mom inspired me to dance. She performed with the Joffrey Ballet back in the 1980s and went to Professional Children's School, too," he said.

Although Manning plans to audition for spots with various ballet companies next year, his ultimate goal is to join the New York City Ballet. "When I was living in Florida and learning about the School of American Ballet, I made the decision that it was the only company I wanted to be part of," he said.

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