Center Stage

Center Stage

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JMU student has performed at the Kennedy Center several times among A-list celebrities.

STORY | MIKE DOLZER

PHOTO | ALEXIS MILLER

“When the lights are on you, it’s like you’re dancing alone, and it’s awesome.”

This is how Audra Avery, a senior hospitality management major, describes taking center stage at the Kennedy Center.

Avery has performed in a number of shows at that venue under the tutelage of famed actress and choreographer Debbie Allen, and has met scores of A-list celebrities, ranging from Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise to Julie Andrews and Steven Spielberg.

Despite the big names Avery’s been associated with, it all started with an audition when she was 7 years old. For part of the audition, she had to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but there was a catch.

“I went up to the pianist and said, ‘Um, I don’t know the words to this song,’ so I didn’t sing it, and then they said, ‘OK, we’ll teach it to you,’” she says. “So then I had to sing in front of everyone, which I guess was good, because it made me stand out and, thankfully, I didn’t choke.”

Out of the 500 children who auditioned, Avery was one of the seven cast in “Pearl,” a rendition of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” She played Sparkle, a happy and bubbly “dwown,” which is a cross between a dwarf and a clown. Avery performed as Sparkle for over two months — almost 50 shows at the Kennedy Center.

Her time as Sparkle is also where she met one of her first celebrities, Michael Jackson.

“He came backstage to meet the cast but would only speak with Debbie Allen and the dwowns,” she says. “He was dressed as a clown — still not sure why — but I got to sit on his lap.”

These days, Avery struggles with balancing her starstudded dreams of being a performer and the reality of life as a college student. Her hospitality management major is her backup plan if the glitz and glam of Broadway escape her reach.

“It’s really hard switching from dancing so much to so little,” Avery says. “I just want to dance, but gotta finish out and get that degree.”

Although she loves dancing now, there was a time when Avery, who was homeschooled and devoted most of her time to dance classes, was ready to leave the dance floor. Her mother, Lisa Avery, had other ideas for her teenage daughter.

“I wanted her to have an outlet outside the house, and I knew that that really was a God-given gift that she had for dancing,” Lisa says. “I didn’t want her to throw it away because she had been so over-committed with classes.”

Avery and her mother agreed to reduce her dance class schedule, a decision that both are glad they made. Family plays a big role in Avery’s dance life. Aside from her mother’s guidance, her older sister, Erin Avery, was the one who first introduced her to the world of dance.

“My older sister started dancing at 9 and would come home from dance classes and stretch me into my splits and would teach me what she learned,” she says. “Because of her, I began to take dance lessons.”

Erin, who now works as a performer for Carnival Cruise Lines, could see that her sister had star quality from the start.

“When Audra performs onstage, it’s like watching a painting come to life,” Erin says. “You can’t help but watch her, and it’s always been like that.”

Those dance lessons that Erin inspired led to a multitude of opportunities for Avery, but that was something that no one saw coming.

“I never set out for her to go as far as she went at such a young age — that wasn’t my goal,” Lisa says. “We would go to dance competitions for her sister, and Audra would sit there and critique people, ‘Her toes aren’t pointed, I don’t like her costume.’ Since she was young and absorbing it all, she was like, ‘I can do that.’”

That absorption garnered the attention of Erin’s dance instructor, who prompted her mom to let Avery, who was 5 years old at the time, perform a solo.

“We hated the mentality of the ‘Dance Moms’ type thing,” Lisa says. “I went in to say, ‘I think it’s too much,’ and the teacher said, ‘No, no, I know she can do it.’”

As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and Avery stuck to that. She spent every night practicing and would ask her mom to critique her. She would even watch videos of judges correcting other dancers and tweak her solo until she had incorporated that advice.

That dedication helped Avery land one of her biggest accomplishments to date, an offer from Debbie Allen to live in her house with other young dancers and audition for all her shows.

But it wasn’t in the cards for the sparkly young dancer.

“My parents were very against it because they didn’t want my childhood to be taken away,” Avery says.

She found it hard to understand that decision at first.

“I wasn’t very happy because I loved everything about it,” Avery says. “I’m glad now looking back because I don’t know what I would’ve turned into having been in that business at such a young age.”

Despite Avery’s glimmer of fame, her parents made sure that she didn’t let the entertainment industry change who she was.

“I would tell her, ‘You treat everyone with respect,’” Lisa says. “She would always be the last one out because she would stay and help the makeup artists clean their brushes.”

For the future, Avery plans on auditioning for Broadway shows or following in her sister’s footsteps and performing on a cruise.

“Performing is my true passion in life, and to be able to get paid to do what I love would be a dream come true,” Avery says.