All the world’s a stage for a Darien dancer

Lee Melton seems to have found her calling at a young age.

The Darien teenager began taking ballet classes at age 4. “It was really fun,” she said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”

Lee now attends a full-time ballet training program in New York, won major awards at recent competitions in Florida and Boston, and will participate in the San Francisco Ballet School’s summer program on a full scholarship.

“Ballet is not only technically challenging but artistically challenging as well,” she said. “You’re working on perfecting yourself and always trying to do better.”

She said ballet is a demanding art to pursue, with all the training, practicing and performances. “But as one teacher tells me, ‘It doesn’t always take discipline to do what you love.’ And I love what I do,” she said.

Of course, Lee has the discipline necessary to succeed in the super-competitive world of ballet. Her goal is to become a full-time ballet dancer despite the limited number of opportunities to do so.

“I’m hoping to be in a professional ballet company — one of the leading ones in the United States or Europe,” she said.

The 16-year-old high school sophomore hasn’t forgotten about her studies. She’s enrolled in an online school and plans to attend medical school once her ballet career is over.

“You have to be very disciplined and self-guided,” Lee said. “You have to set your own deadlines.”

Ellen Melton, Lee’s mother, said her youngest daughter’s dual pursuit of ballet and academics show it’s possible to do both, and that alternative paths may work best for students with certain interests and talents.

“She wants that track,” Ellen said of Lee wanting to become a professional dancer, recognizing it’s a unique decision and may be difficult at times. “We are behind her all the way,” Ellen said.

Ballet has helped Lee with her academic work by teaching her about commitment, disappointment, patience and confidence.

“Like any sport, there are plateaus and valleys,” said Ellen, who pursued ballet herself while growing up. “You learn how much commitment is involved to get results. You learn how to manage disappointment and not give up.”

Lee with her family

Attending Ellison Ballet — a private program in New York City — has helped Lee thrive. “She’s now dancing with 40 kids who all have the same passion,” Ellen said.

Lee’s schedule is demanding. She has to leave her home in Darien early to be at Ellison in Manhattan by 9 a.m. on weekdays to participate in stretching exercises. Classes, workshops and rehearsals usually last until 6 or 7 p.m.

Then it’s back home to do school work not completed during the commute. She’s driven by her mom, another parent or takes the train, and sometimes stays overnight with a relative who lives in New York City.

“Every day when I come home, my muscles are sore,” Lee said.

Her weekends are rarely free due to physical therapy, stretch classes, conditioning exercises and competitions.

Her father, Edward Melton, said watching his daughter perform is exciting. He’s impressed with her athletic ability and mental concentration. “There’s a remarkable amount of preparation that goes into it,” he said.

Lee with his sisters

Ellen said her daughter seems to have unique talent. “There’s something when she’s on that stage that captivates you,” she said. “Mr. Ellison says, ‘What she has is nothing I can teach.’ So he sees it, too.”

Lee appreciates her family’s backing. “I’m so lucky to have such a great support system, with my parents and sisters,” she said.

Lee first took up ballet at the New England Academy of Dance in New Canaan, following in the footsteps of her middle sister, Tate, who also participated in ballet when younger.

Lee’s capabilities were obvious early on. “She just picked up on it from the beginning,” Ellen said.

Lee remembers acting in local productions of The Nutcracker at large venues by age 6. “When I was little I always looked up to the dancers older than me,” she said. “I always wanted to be like them. And now that I am one of them, I look up to the professional dancers.”

She then took classes at Greenwich Ballet Academy and, during summers, attended the Nutmeg Conservatory in Torrington and a program in Middlebury with instructors from Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet.

Besides her studies, Lee now focuses almost exclusively on ballet. She played sports like soccer and lacrosse and also dabbled in music while attending Darien public schools. “I was just a normal kid,” she said.

She still finds time to hang out with hometown pals. “I have a really good group of friends who are very supportive,” Lee said.

She’s become close to her fellow Ellison students. “We’re like a small family,” she said.

Lee recently excelled at two competitions, winning scholarship funds. She won the senior division in the Boston regionals of the Youth America Grand Prix, known as the world’s largest student ballet competition. At the American Dance/Youth International Ballet Competition in Florida, she won the senior division’s grand prix award.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said of the awards.

Both competitions involved classical and contemporary ballet, the two main forms. Classical requires very specific movements while contemporary is more free and expressive. Lee has mostly focused on classical, so contemporary is newer to her.

Lee, who’s won local ballet events as well, said she’s determined to succeed in ballet. “It’s important to stay strong mentally and physically,” she said of her perseverance. “It’s what it takes to be a professional ballet dancer.”

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