In ballet, youth turns unruly streak into art

Posted: December 10, 2002

Moments before a recent Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsal, the Nutcracker Prince - Shawn Sebastian, age 15 - was hanging out in the hall, munching on a Dunkin' Donut and chatting with friends. Just your average Jersey kid, except for ballet shoes instead of Nikes.

But then came his time to dance.

Shawn drew himself up into an elegant ballet stance. Then, in movements fluid and sure, he glided across the floor with his Marie, bestowing a princely bow on the Sugar Plum Fairy before regaling her with a rousing pantomime of his victorious battle with the evil Mouse King. He had style, presence - and maybe an MTV move or two.

With the triumphant thrust of his imaginary sword, his fellow dancers broke into applause. The Prince couldn't help but smile.

An average kid? Yes, and no.

This is Shawn's second year as the Prince in The Nutcracker. His teachers and the critics say he has professional potential in an art form where there is room for very few.

Not bad for someone who hadn't taken a ballet class until four years ago. But, then, Shawn didn't take the usual route to ballet. And dancing talent isn't all that's special about this Lindenwold teenager.

Shawn is one of 10 siblings in a very close, cross-racial, multiethnic family led by Bonnie Sebastian, 49, a single parent who directs Bancroft NeuroHealth's Center for Children and Families in Cherry Hill. Sebastian, who was an only child, adopted eight of Shawn's brothers and sisters, several of whom have special needs. Shawn and his half sister, Jessica, 20, are her biological children.

As a little guy, Shawn was a handful.

"He was sort of hyperactive and all over the place," Sebastian said.

"I was breaking my mom's stuff," Shawn said.

But his mother, whose agency helps families with autistic children, believes in playing to children's strengths. So when Shawn was 5, she put him in gymnastics. He was good, especially at the floor routines. Then again, he had always loved dancing.

"Dance has always, forever, been my second nature. Ever since I could walk," Shawn said. "I would do the stuff on TV."

In the fifth grade, he signed up for a dance program at school. MTV it was not. "It turned out to be a drag, really boring. It was colonial court dances," he said. "I thought it was going to be hip-hop."

Still, he did well.

"I always look at everything I do the same way: Do it your best the first time. Otherwise, they'll make you do it over again."

He so impressed the teacher, she suggested he check out the highly regarded Rock School for Dance Education in South Philadelphia.

"I didn't know the Rock School," he said. "I hadn't thought about the ballet world before. The main thing for me was what would my friends think and would I have to wear tights?"

Shawn and his mother talked it over. He decided to audition. When he showed up, though, he was the only one in sweatpants and socks. It seemed another world, especially for a frenetic, chatty, unruly 11-year-old.

"The silence scared me. And the whispering to each other. I was like, 'Say something,' " Shawn remembered.

But the Rock School people saw something in Shawn. They gave him a scholarship. Shawn pushed himself to learn. The classical music - "lullaby music" - didn't hook him, but the movement did. Shawn found something to love.

"Whenever I do ballet, everything drifts away," he said. "Nothing is there. No family, no friends, no problems. Especially when I'm onstage. I love being onstage."

Soon enough, he was. Just months after starting at the Rock School, Shawn was cast as Fritz, Marie's obstreperous little brother, in the Pennsylvania Ballet's 1999 Nutcracker.

"He was quite a Fritz," Shawn's mother said. "Fritz is the bratty little brother. Shawn was 12 at the time. We said, 'He's been practicing that for 12 years.' "

Shawn happily hammed it up; he could hear the laughter.

After his two years as Fritz, his ballet elders weren't sure he was ready to be the Prince. In the end, they were delighted.

"There's a freshness and an energy he brings to the part - an innocence, in a way. It's wonderful to watch," said Bo Spassoff, executive director of the Rock School.

In September, Shawn started his freshman year at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology's Southern New Jersey Academy of the Performing Arts. He has impressed his ballet teacher there, David Kloss, a founding member of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

"He's very - I'm going to use the word focused - for his age, and he has a style," Kloss said. "For a male, he's very focused in his art."

Shawn works hard. At the academy, he studies dance two hours a day, besides taking dance classes five days a week at the Rock School. And he has thrived.

"The one thing he did say," Kloss recalled, "was it's the first time someone didn't take his [ballet] jacket on the first day of school and throw it in the trash."

Indeed, pursuing his love of ballet has had a price.

Shawn's not tall, and in about the third grade he became the target of bullies. When the bullies learned he was in ballet, the torment increased. But Shawn wouldn't give up dance. Last year, when he was in eighth grade, it came to a head.

"He got put in a trash can, literally, one day because he chose to dance," Shawn's mother said.

"That was the last straw," Shawn said. "I was publicly humiliated. I was dirty and smelly. I got out of the trash can and punched the kid in the face, and I put him in the trash can."

He got an in-school suspension, but the bullying subsided. And Shawn kept dancing.

Those days seem far away now. Last week, Shawn danced The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet in Cleveland. Heady stuff - his first time away from home on his own, his first time flying. On Friday, he'll be the Prince on opening night in Philadelphia. Ryan Merlini, 11, of Ambler, will be the Prince in the production's second cast.

Shawn's mother already has the tickets for the nights the Sebastian brood will attend. There are so many of them, they go in shifts. "We're not going to have the Sebastian row," she said.

Shawn's teachers say he could have a future in dance, and Shawn said dance would always be a part of life. But he has other plans as well.

"Dancers only dance until they're 35. I want a good college background."

He thinks he might like to be a journalist, maybe write books someday. He wants to get married, start a family of his own. Being part of his family has taught him the value of being unique, of being oneself.

"Like today, an hour ago - it's never going to happen again," he said. "You've got to live day by day and not live by what anybody else thinks because, not to sound conceited, but in the end it's your opinion that matters."

Contact Rita Giordano

at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

If You Go

The Pennsylvania Ballet will present matinee and evening performances of The Nutcracker from Friday to Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets, from $19 to $92, can be purchased from Ticket Philadelphia at 215-893-1999 or online at www.kimmelcenter.org/

events/. For more information, call the Pennsylvania Ballet at 215-551-7000.

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