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Article updated: 7/25/2013 5:28 AM

Elk Grove Village dancer already in elite company

By Kimberly Pohl Elena Ferrarin

Back in May, Joey Massarelli had one of those moments when all the stars appeared to be aligning for him.

The Elk Grove Village teen sat at his desk in fifth-period philosophy at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, the first class to ever really inspire him academically.

School -- or at least the reading, writing and arithmetic part of it -- had never been his thing, perhaps a residual effect of the bacterial spinal meningitis he contracted as a baby that temporarily took his eyesight and nearly ended his life.

Then came a text from his mother, Catherine, relaying the news that he had been accepted into the Royal Ballet School's international summer intensive, one of the most prestigious programs through one the world's most storied companies.

"It's been my dream to join the Royal Ballet in London, so the idea of training there, even if it's just for two weeks, is beyond amazing," Joey said.

The 16-year-old is in England this week getting his first taste of that potential life, riding the Tube to the Covent Garden district, working alongside the institution's distinguished faculty and getting the opportunity to see a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, in town for a short time from Moscow.

Joey's coming off a first-place showing in the Contemporary category at the regional Youth American Grand Prix, the renowned student ballet scholarship competition. He placed second in the Ballet category.

All the more impressive? Joey didn't take his first ballet lesson until he was 13.

"What he's doing now is something that was never on our radar," Catherine Massarelli said. "I never could have guessed this would be his thing."

As a little kid, Joey had unyielding energy, constantly climbing trees and fences, and bouncing in a manner that sort of resembled dancing. His energy was channeled into sports including soccer, baseball and gymnastics.

In the sixth grade, Joey kept wanting to tag along to his older sister's dance studio, so he signed up for a break-dancing class through the park district. His acrobatic skills -- he was working on landing a full twist when he turned his attention to dance -- led to requests to appear in just about every recital number.

"From there it just kind of bloomed," said Joey, who then took jazz and tap, and joined a competitive team.

His first competition was the Dance America regional, which he won. That led to the nationals in New York City, which he also won.

While taking some more advanced lessons in the city, Joey was urged to look into Chicago Academy for the Arts, one of only four independent schools in the U.S. that provide professional arts training and a comprehensive academic education.

But the school, on Chicago Avenue in the River West neighborhood, was brimming with talented teens who had been dancing for more than a decade. And Joey was pretty late to the game.

Though raw and unpolished, Joey's audition earned him a place in the Class of 2014. At CAA, he has transformed as a dancer, guided by some of the city's most well-known instructors and choreographers.

"Once I stood at that (ballet) bar, it really started to click and I really started to enjoy it," Joey said. "It's kind of cliché, but I feel free. I'm able to really just be myself."

Randy Duncan, chairman of CAA's dance department, said Joey immediately stood out.

"When Joey came in, he was just an anointed dancer," Duncan said. "You can tell when a youngster has God-given talent. He was meant to dance from birth."

Even as a freshman, he won a coveted spot on the CAA Repertory Dance Company, comprised of 14 of the school's best students. The group performs at charity events and other venues such as the Harris Theater for its Eat to the Beat series.

CAA students face a rigorous academic schedule and concentrate in one of six artistic disciplines: dance, media arts, music, musical theater, theater and visual arts. They take six academic periods followed by a three-hour immersion in their specific discipline.

Martin Grochala, director of institutional advancement at CAA, said students average 90-minute commutes each way. One student lives in Wisconsin.

"These kids are here at the crack of dawn, six or seven days a week, and you can't get them to leave," Grochala said. "It's a huge commitment that they make, and most thrive in it."

Catherine Massarelli said Joey, though often exhausted, will be dancing within five minutes of getting home at night. And when he's not dancing, he's typically reading about or watching YouTube videos of all the best ballet companies. He can rattle off the names of all the principal dancers.

Duncan agreed that Joey's work ethic has been key to his growth. "It's his energy, the way he works so diligently and really, really listens and understands what movement is," Duncan said. "He engages so it's artistic expression and not just movement for movement's sake. He got it from the beginning."

Joey has spent parts of the past three summers dancing in Houston, with Ballet West in Salt Lake City and at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. He was offered the chance to spend the school year studying there but turned it down due to financial reasons and because he's got a good thing going at CAA.

Though he excels at the jumps and turns, Joey is drawn to the Royal Ballet and European companies that emphasize "cleanliness as opposed to the big stuff." He hopes he'll get the opportunity to join a company right out of high school. If not, he's happy to get to a more traditional university or conservatory where he can continue studying dance.

"I love being onstage because it's the one place I feel I can let go of everything and just focus on being an artist," Joey said. "And it's funny because I used to hate ballet. I thought it was boring. Then I was forced to do it every day and it became my passion. You can never be perfect at it; there's always something to work for. There's always a challenge to overcome, and I think that's why I love it."

Ÿ Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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