Ethan Gwynn blasts off, seems to halt in midair, then settles to the State Theatre stage like a feather.
He flows alone through shadows and light fluid, weightless. Seconds later, hes as still as a crane fishing.
Gwynn, 22, is mesmerizing his audience, as a talented dancer possibly on the cusp of a professional career should.
But once upon a time, he was spinning his wheels until dancing carried him forward.
He had dropped out of Penn State. Ballet interested him, and he studied with a top instructor, but dancing wasnt his sole focus. He was young, just out of his teenage years, hanging out in State College as he did growing up, performing some, working at the Silver Bay YMCA conference and retreat center in the Adirondacks.
He enlisted in the Navy.
But then, while returning from Silver Bay in December, the car he was riding in slid on ice into a snow plow. Gwynn took a bad blow, suffering a broken nose and cheek bone, a cut spleen, a dislocated hip and other injuries. The Navy was out.
When he recovered enough, he began studying dance again locally. It helped him heal.
And it brought him to a crossroads.
I definitely saw it as a sign: OK, either find work in State College and get a minimum wage job or dance and see how it goes, he said.
These days, it looks like he took the right step.
Gwynn has shown his blend of power and grace this year during local performances for the Central Pennsylvania Dance Workshop, CPDWs Fraser Street Dancers, the Brio Dance Company and the Pennsylvania Dance Theatre. His talent persuaded the Staycee Pearl Dance Project, a modern dance company in Pittsburgh, to invite him to a weeklong tryout at the end of this month.
This spring, the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company in Austin, Texas, offered a contract. Gwynn mulled it over, but instead chose to return to school in the fall, this time at Slippery Rock University to study dance.
After coming to CPDW for the spring semester, Gwynn expanded from classical ballet to modern and hip-hop dancing.
Studio director Jill Brighton, who has known Gwynn for years, said he took a lot of natural ability and grew considerably, both in technique and his ability to respond to subtleties in choreographers movements.
On top of being a great kid, she said, he has become a dynamic performer.
If he continues to make the kind of progress Ive seen in the last six or eight months, he definitely could go far, Brighton said.
Dance a new activity
His Facebook page shows him soaring, shirtless under a summer fedora, beside a lake with a golden sun low in the sky.
But dance wasnt always his thing.
All through his school years, he acted in local musical theater productions, indulging a love for performing and singing. He also enjoyed sports, mainly gymnastics and rugby.
I like being active, he said. I like challenging myself physically.
Dance didnt enter the picture until his senior year in high school. After a ballet version of The Crucible, drama friends started taking classes at the Arts Conservatory of Central Pennsylvania, now called the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania.
Gwynn said the school directors daughter invited him to check it out.
They just needed guys to lift the girls during the shows, he said, laughing. I was like, Yeah, why not?
Andrea Hill, then the director and now leading the City Ballet of Wilmington, N.C., has taught several accomplished male dancers from the State College area.
Her success stories include Aaron Scott, with the American Ballet Theatre in New York since 2004, and Alex Manning, currently studying with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
Hill recalls being struck by Gwynns strength, flexibility and acting skill from the moment he walked in the door.
But his technique was a mess, she said. He was kind of all over the place.
Gwynn proved a quick learner, turning undisciplined potential into performances as his bulky gymnasts muscles lengthened for dancing.
His improvement was remarkable, Hill said. Every month, there were dramatic changes in how he danced.
His theater background helped. Hill said some dancers, while technically proficient, struggle to convey emotion.
Thats something they have to learn, but Ethan had that naturally, she said. He had that natural ability to express himself.
Hill sparked a passion in dance I never knew I had, Gwynn wrote in a testimonial to his former teacher. Though he jumped into the training, he said, she kept pushing him.
Through the class, I thought, This is fun. This is amazing. I like this, he said.
Having strong male dancers around provided good role models for Gwynn, Hill said. But he showed the studio a thing or two about charisma.
He was a positive energy, Hill said. If anybody was having a negative day, being around Ethan for a few minutes cheered them up. He was a big boost to the company.
Kid at heart
After two years, Penn State didnt work out.
I had to force myself to go to class, Gwynn said.
He found more enjoyment returning for stints at the Silver Bay retreat on Lake George. Among his jobs, he worked as a childrens camp leader an experience that inspired him to be a youth counselor for the YMCA of Centre County this summer in addition to teaching adult hip-hop dancing at CPDW.
Im a kid at heart, he said. I have an excuse to fill a water balloon and chuck it in a colleagues face, and the kids love it.
His car accident, though, made him think seriously.
His right side was out of commission. Supposed to report to the Navy in January, he wound up in bed for a week.
As he slowly recovered, growing stronger, regaining his flexibility, sympathetic friends kept asking him the same thing.
Everybody who talked to me was concerned if I could still dance, he said.
He considered it a message. He was meant for the stage.
Everything about dance is physically and mentally challenging, he said. Thats what drew me to dancing because I hate giving anything up.
By now, ballet has developed his core, back and legs, building the strong foundation needed to master other dance forms and develop artistically.
It has also given him a deep respect for the pain involved, the hours spent swimming, lifting, stretching at the barre over pools of sweat and repeating steps over and over to make it all look effortless.
Guys he knows still raise eyebrows about the tights. They picture mincing. Then Gwynn invites his pals into the studio to watch him work out. Often, he said, they leave impressed.
Theres nothing feminizing or emasculating about dancing, he said.
Neither does he believe in stereotypes for female dancers. It angers him that many subscribe to the notion they have to be willowy with stick limbs.
Theres a big girl in my hip-hop class, and shes rocking it, he said.
Lane Grosser, the Performing Arts School director, cast Gwynn this year in her show for her Brio Dance Company and as the Huntsman in a school production of Snow White.
She said his upbeat personality and confidence distinguish him as much as his jump and drive.
As a person, hes great to work with, she said. Hes willing to do anything. He doesnt have a chip on his shoulder.
He accepts direction. He wants to get better, and thats what will make him successful.
Hill also anticipates a rosy future for Gwynn.
Im excited to see what happens with him because hes got the potential, she said. As long as he continues training the right way, he could be a very strong dancer and dance professionally.
Gwynn hopes so, but right now, hes not looking further than a Pittsburgh tryout and college in the fall.
OK, Ive gone this far. Whats next? he said. So far, everything has been a blessing.