The Joffrey's Little Dynamo, Tina Leblanc, Makes The Nutcracker Sweet and Proves That Tall Isn't All

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

I'm not your typical-looking dancer," says Tina LeBlanc. She's got that right. Only 5'1", LeBlanc was rejected as too short by the American Ballet Theatre before the Joffrey Ballet accepted her, at 17, as its youngest and, yes, shortest dancer ever. Nor is she exactly a twig. "She's got meat and bosom there," said one Joffrey guest artist. "I'd hate to see her any other way."

Does this make LeBlanc, now 22 and in her fourth season with the Joffrey, the Mary Lou Ret-ton of ballet? Not really, though DanceMagazine did describe her earlier this year as "the company powerhouse—fearless, full-bodied, full-blooded." That kind of energy and verve are what audiences in Washington and Los Angeles will see this month when LeBlanc dances the plum role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Joffrey's production of The Nutcracker.

"She has presence onstage that only the great ones have had," says Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino. "Pavlova wasn't very tall either. Tina dances like a giant." The New York Times seconds the motion. Its critic recently called LeBlanc "the first true shining young star American ballet has had in years...a dancer of great, even poetic individuality."

Growing up in Dills-burg, Pa., LeBlanc felt neither great nor poetic. "I was a mouse, very quiet, with not a lot of friends," she says. Like her older sister, Laurie (now 26 and a choreographer for the Pacific Ballet Theatre in Portland, Ore.), and her younger sister, Sherri (now 17 and an apprentice with the New York City Ballet), Tina lived to dance. Her parents, Russell, a financial adviser, and Shirley, a nurse, encouraged her. When a Joffrey director spotted the 15-year-old at a Pennsylvania dance festival, it was her mother who broke the news. "She came into my dressing room and said, 'I think you just got a job offer,' " Tina says. "It blew me away."

Tina moved to New York to join Joffrey II, the ballet's apprentice troupe. "The age gap between me and the other dancers was pretty large," she says. Bouts of homesickness and self-doubt increased until, in her second season, she considered quitting. But during a three-week tour break, she went home to her parents and came back with new resolve. She made the senior company the next year.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her Manhattan apartment, LeBlanc says she finds her emergence as a star "kind of surprising. It's like...there are so many other good dancers, with better feet or better this and that," she says. "I can't figure out why I've been singled out. But then again," she adds with a bewitching smile, "I don't watch myself dance."

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