07/24/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
When she moved to New York City from Haiti five years ago, Sandra Dupiton was a timid 13-year-old who loved to dance but dared to perform only when she was alone watching Fame on Haitian TV. At 15, she took her first modern dance class but made herself so inconspicuous that her instructor hardly noticed her. "At first she didn't even exist in my mind," recalls Paul Thompson, Dupiton's teacher at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan. "She was so shy, she just faded into the background."
Now, at last, the dancer Thompson once considered a "shadow" has found her way into the limelight. She has performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, studied with the Joffrey Ballet and won a $4,000 Presidential Scholar in the Arts award that got her an invitation to the Today show. Martha Graham, the legendary grande dame of modern dance, calls her "an outstanding dancer with a power of communication unusual in one so young."
Paradoxically, Dupiton's shyness may have contributed to her stunning success. Through dance "she can express those deep passions that she cannot express in words," says Thompson. The turning point came when Dupiton finally shed the tethers of self-consciousness in a 1986 dance class. "I just exploded," she says. "I did not care what they thought of me or my dancing. For the first time, I was not afraid to dance in front of an audience."
Inspired by acclaim, Dupiton has grown a bit bolder since the day she came north to live with an aunt, leaving her family behind. This fall she will attend Sarah Lawrence College. "I would like Sandra to be a doctor or a lawyer," says her mother, Anne-Marie, now a seamstress in Brooklyn. "But she wants to dance." Not for the family, however. "I have never let them see me perform," says Dupiton. "I think I would freak out and forget the steps."