Sometimes when she is making the two-hour drive five days a week from Naples to Rome to take her son, Aran, to his ballet lessons, Michelle Bell looks over at the angelic-looking blond doing his school work or just peacefully sleeping and wonders: "Why was he given to us?"
"To us, it's so surreal," says Bell, speaking for herself and her husband, Ryan, a Navy physician stationed in Italy, about Aran (pronounced AHR-ahn), a ballet prodigy. "It's something we never get used to.
"I believe he must have danced in a previous life, because there is just no other explanation for it. There are no dancers in our family. I think he must have been here before and we're just along for the ride."
It's easy to understand how Bell could feel that way. Aran Bell, who is attending the Carreño Dance Festival's summer intensive workshop and will perform in its "Festival of the Stars" gala Saturday night alongside guests from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and the New York City Ballet, is extraordinary even by ballet wunderkind standards.
By the age of 6 he could whip off a polished double pirouette; by 8 he had a personal record of 10 revolutions. ("To the left!" Aran amends. "I'm a left turner.")
For the past three years, he has won the top award for his age at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in New York, an international competition for the most elite pre-professionals.
He has danced in galas all over Europe and the United States and has recently been invited to perform in Russia and Japan.
See a gallery of Aran Bell's dance career.
He was asked to play the lead role in a Broadway production of "Billy Elliott," but turned it down for fear it might interfere with his training.
He has been accepted to "every ballet school on the planet," according to his mother, including the Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Ballet in London and the Paris Opera Ballet, all offering scholarships and other enticements.
And recently, after getting a special dispensation to perform at an international competition for 16- to 25-year-olds in Milan, he blew away the competition and pocketed a neat 7,000 euros for first place.
And that was before he turned 12 last October.
"He's incredible for his age, really amazing," says José Manuel Carreño, the director of the festival, who met Aran on a YAGP tour last year and invited him to attend this inaugural workshop in Sarasota. "He reminds me a lot of myself at that age."
The Cuban-born Carreño who, at 42, recently retired from a star-studded career with ABT, sees in his young pupil the same fire that drove him to pursue the only occupation he has ever known.
"The main thing with Aran is his attitude," says Carreño. "You feel he really wants to be there, to dance, to learn. He reminds me of myself. That hunger. When you see a kid like him ... well, if I saw 20 kids with his kind of drive, I could not say no to any of them.
"This is a slave career and I know through all my years this is the main thing you will need. If you don't see this thing, they do not go far."
A dancer is born
When Aran was 3 years old and his family was living in the Washington, D.C., area, he tagged along when his sister, Alexandra, now 17, went to ballet class.
Afterward, he asked his mother, "Why does sister get to take ballet and I don't?"
She explained that he got to play soccer instead, but when he persisted in begging for ballet, just to get him to stop asking, Michelle Bell promised he could start at age 4. She felt quite certain he'd forget about it by then.
Not so. Shortly after his fourth birthday, Aran reminded her of her promise and she conceded. Initially she placed him in a class with a strict Japanese teacher who "didn't believe in baby ballet" and required a commitment of an hour and a half, five days a week, right off the bat.
Aran says he doesn't remember much about that first day, other than the teacher telling him to "stand at the barre and don't move until I tell you to."
"She probably thought I would leave right then," Aran says. "But I loved it right away."
Less than two weeks later, the teacher told Michelle Bell she was 99 percent sure Aran could be a professional dancer.
"I said, Are you kidding me?!" recalls Bell, "In six months he'll be playing soccer again!"
No, the teacher advised, she'd better start thinking about home schooling arrangements for him because he would soon need to have academic flexibility in order to pursue his training – in New York or elsewhere.
"I thought, What?" says Michelle Bell. "He was in Montessori school, for heavens sake! But it ended up being she was right."
A taxing commute
Aran Bell likes to joke that his mother "got a whole new vocabulary" when she started driving him through Rome's hairy traffic three years ago so he could spend several hours a day working with Denis Ganio, formerly of the Paris Opera Ballet and one of the late Roland Petit's premier danseurs.
"I'd never heard her say those words before," he says with a sly smile.
Michelle Bell acknowledges patience on the roadway is not her forte. There are many days when the thought of another four hours in the car — the last 8 miles in Rome's congestion can take almost an hour — makes her feel unstrung. But she never considers not doing it.
"If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would say any parent who does that kind of thing is crazy, insane," she says. "But if you have a child with this sort of gift, it almost becomes a responsibility. You feel you have to do whatever you can to help him."
The Bells – including her husband, who was "right on board with this from Day One" – have fulfilled that unspoken obligation for many years now. When they lived in the D.C. area, Aran trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, PA, also two hours away.
"We have a joke that wherever we move to, the good training is two hours away," says Bell, with a grimace.
She initially made the drive every day of the week.
"We put a stop to that pretty quickly because we wanted him to have time for normal kid things," she says. "But I can tell you, it took some convincing to get him to accept he wouldn't fall apart if he only danced five days a week."
In one sense, Michelle Bell, who grew up in the competitive hunter-jumper horse world in Massachusetts, understood the commitment necessary to pursue such a difficult career choice. But like any parents might, she and her husband worried: Are the pressures on Aran excessive? Is he around older people too much? Is it too much, too soon? Will he burn out?
"We're very careful to watch for signs that he is taking on too much," she says. "And no one knows what the future holds. If he decides at 20 that he's finished, we'll support him in that.
"He's already done more than many professional dancers. If that's what he chooses, I don't think it would be tragic."
Keeping a low profile
What she doesn't worry about is her son getting a big head. Aran, who is a mere 5'2" and 90 pounds, is naturally shy, at least off stage, and is reluctant to attract attention. Outside of the ballet world, few people even know he's a dancer.
After he won his first "Hope Award" (the grand prix of the younger, pre-competitive division) at the YAGP in 2009, he dutifully reported the names of the first, second and third place winners to his teacher, who subsequently consoled him, "Too bad, maybe next time."
Aran had neglected to mention he'd won the top prize.
"When I asked him why he did tell his teacher, he said, 'Well, he didn't ask me!'" Michelle Bell says. "Aran has this remarkable ability to keep it all in perspective. He doesn't talk about it on Facebook, he just moves on. It's all very personal for him."
She's stopped asking her son if he wants to try something else. So have others – like the Italian youth cycling team coach who tried to recruit him or the swim coach who also got turned down.
"This is all he wants to do," says Bell. "He just wants to dance."
But the Bells have drawn the line, at least so far, at sending their son away to train, despite the lure of multiple scholarship offers all over the world. And gala invitations are accepted only if sponsors agree to cover the cost of "a package deal" – the family as well as the dancer.
"We're willing to make lots of sacrifices," says Michelle Bell, "but our family is not one of them."
While her husband currently debates whether or not to re-enlist in the military, the decision will rest largely on how close any option will put them to available training for Aran. Recently Ryan Bell explained the situation to his "detailer" — the Navy officer in charge of assigning him to his next station – hoping for some understanding.
The detailer replied: "Sorry, but I'm not basing my decision on some 12-year-old kid's schooling."
Aran himself is hoping for New York, where he could continue to work privately with Carreño, someone he says "has been my favorite dancer for a long time." He says there are many companies he might eventually like to join but that, for now, his goals are more modest.
"Improving is always a nice feeling," he says with typical understatement. "But what happens next depends mostly on where we move. I'm very thankful my parents are so supportive and committed to getting me good training. I'm really very lucky to have them."
Michelle Bell feels it's the other way around. She looks forward to returning to riding horses rather than freeways one day, but she has no hesitation about doing whatever it takes to further her son's aspirations right now.
"I feel it's all going by so quickly," she says. "I know in a few years, he won't need so much physical support anymore and my own mother reminds me that when that day comes, I am going to miss it.
"I don't consider any of it a sacrifice because, in a way, it's our honor to be on this journey with him. It's amazing to watch him pursue this dream."
PREVIEW: "Festival of the Stars," featuring faculty and advanced students from the Carreño Dance Festival's inaugural summer intensive workshop. Saturday, Aug. 27, 5 p.m. at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. Tickets $15-50. 366-8450; www.sarasotaopera.org.