In the spotlight

  • By Sarah Koenig Enterprise reporter
  • Friday, December 14, 2007 2:24pm

Describing Towa Shinagawa isn’t a simple task, for there seem to be two versions of her — the one who comes out in conversation and the one who appears when dancing.

Shinagawa, a seventh-grader at Einstein Middle School, moved to Shoreline from Japan a year ago knowing no English. This winter, she’s dancing the lead role of Clara in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker in Seattle.

In an interview before ballet practice Monday, Dec. 17, Shinagawa spoke in a quiet voice. Girlishly, she raised her eye brows with excitement, pausing to search for the right words at times.

In ballet practice an hour later, she took her place at the bar and seemed transformed.

The smallest girl in the class, she held her body perfectly erect, swung her leg up to her ear and started in on ballet exercises with an aura of grace, the kind that marks a natural.

She wore an expression of delight and expectation, the kind performers have when facing an audience of thousands.

Students in class were struggling that day with tough moves like turning full circle on one foot with the other leg in the air. At one point, the teacher watched while a student tried and failed to balance herself on tip toe.

“I do it so good when you’re not looking,” the student told the teacher. “I can’t do it when you’re looking.”

The teacher’s answer was wry.

“Oh — I’m sorry, 3,000 patrons who just paid to see me, I can’t do it when you’re looking,” he said with a grin.

A discussion ensued on whether dancers on stage can see the audience.

Shinagawa feels the pressure of hundreds of eyes, too. She’s nervous before the Nutcracker performances.

“I’m thinking about messing up,” she said.

But when she takes the stage, her fear evaporates.

“When I’m dancing I can’t think,” she said.

In fact, one of the best parts about dancing is having everyone in the audience look at her, she said.

This is her first lead role, though she’s been on stage in performances in Japan and with the Olympic Ballet in Edmonds.

She started studying ballet in Japan seven years ago and continued when she moved to Shoreline last year.

The family’s path to America has been convoluted.

Years ago, Towa’s mother Shinobu Hauge Shinagawa married an American, who died in Japan.

A U.S. citizen, she moved to Seattle and met Towa’s father, Kiyokazu Shinagawa, who’s Japanese. They moved back to Japan together. Last year, the father’s company transferred him to the Unites States.

But after the family settled in Shoreline, the company recalled Kiyokazu Shinagawa to Japan. The problem is that the family wants to stay here, so he’s working in Japan while trying to get a placement in the States.

He visits every three or four months, and the family talks to him on a Web camera on weekends.

“It’s hard,” Shinobu Shinagawa said.

In Japan, she did Japanese flower arranging for a living, and has done Western flower arrangements for weddings, but business has been slow lately, she said. She works at a sushi bar to make ends meet.

Her daughter’s ballet classes at Pacific Northwest Ballet are about $500 a month, which is a stretch financially.

“But it’s worth it,” Shinobu Shinagawa said.

Her daughter attends class six days a week, from an hour and a half to three hours each day. On Saturdays, it’s three and a half hours without a break.

But even when she’s not in class, she’s dancing around the house with no music.

The only bad parts about spending so much time on ballet are that your feet hurt and you’re very busy, Towa Shinagawa said.

She usually eats dinner in the car on the way down to practice at Pacific Northwest Ballet school in Seattle and does her homework after ballet, going to bed around 10 or 11 p.m. She gets up at 7 a.m. to go to school.

She’s in an English Language Learner class at Einstein. Moving to the States was hard at first, as she knew no English.

“At school even when I wanted to go to the bathroom I didn’t know how,” she said. “The first day I was really nervous so I cried, but all the friends were nice to me.”

She now feels at home here, she said. She likes the fact that school offers more freedom than in Japan.

“I can have more fun,” she said. “Of course we have to study.”

For example, in Japan, accessories weren’t allowed at school. The day after she arrived in the States, she got her ears pierced because that’s what she always wanted, she said.

Learning English has been hard, but everyone has been very nice, she said.

Not only does she want to stay in the States, she wants to be a ballet dancer when she grows up. The dancing brings her joy, she said.

“Last night after the show, after the clapping, she said, ‘It feels so good, like a shower of happiness,’” her mother said.