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Balancing Act: Ballet mom

Driving down the interstate midafternoon, you just might spot the Hernandez family whizzing by. In the back of their car, daughter Diana likely will be changing from her school uniform into ballet clothes and combing her hair into a meticulous bun.

In cities across America, the scene plays out the same this time of year: Frenzied parents rushing across town to make sure their kids arrive to rehearse their coveted roles in The Nutcracker. A tardy or a no-show can lead to expulsion, a rule that's strictly enforced in some casts.

Diana, 13, and her parents, Guillermo and Raquel, arrived in Miami from Cuba only six months ago and moved in with Guillermo's sister. Already they are adapting to the harried American way of life.

These days, many parents can tell you that kids are busier than some CEOs. Outside school, there are religious classes, swimming or soccer, piano and foreign languages. Raising these superkids are parents coordinating the logistics while trying to earn the money to pay for it all.

Guillermo, a naval engineer in Cuba, has taken a job at BrandsMart as a cashier. The part-time hours allow him to drive his daughter to rehearsals and dance class and be available to pick her up, too. Raquel is studying to become a nursing assistant while job hunting and helping with the driving. The entire household shares one car.

The family relocation, the taxing commute from Hialeah to Miami Beach in under 30 minutes, and the limited job hours the parents can hold are sacrifices the Hernandezes see as necessary for their daughter's future.

For now, the Hernandezes are ecstatic that in their short time here Diana has been accepted to the Miami City Ballet School and has landed a lead role in The Nutcracker as Marie. Diana's dream of being a professional ballerina is their priority: "We do not want to lose this big opportunity,'' Guillermo says.

Performing in a major production like The Nutcracker requires exceptional discipline, focus, resilience and talent. The enthusiasm from the young performers hardly hints at the whirlwind and sacrifice that paved their path to the Arscht Center. Free time? Not much of that when you combine school, dance classes, rehearsals and ultimately up to two performances a day.

The commitment from parents and children starts at the audition, says Crista Villella, the ballet mistress. Villella trained at the Miami City Ballet School and played Marie in the company's first production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Villella explains that young dancers in her school aren't required to audition, but if they do, they are agreeing to make the show their priority until the final curtain of the last performance.

"If they have soccer, piano, an exam the next day, plane tickets, it doesn't matter. This is a professional production.''

The financial commitment can be a strain, too. Many parents are spending well over $3,000 in tuition per child each year.

Fortunately for Jeanine Bernard, the Miami City Ballet School eliminates tuition for boys, allowing her to channel her 9-year-old Wisly's energy into dance. To make lessons, practices rehearsals and performances, Jeanine had to cut her hours as an elder-care worker, a hit to the family income.

Parents are only allowed to watch rehearsals on designated observation days. It's those days when work/life sacrifices pay off: "I see my son on stage smiling and his eyes are lit up,'' Jeanine says. "When I look at him, I see something I didn't expect, and I just think, 'Wow.' ''