Steamboat Springs The ballet begins. But this time, when the curtain parts, the dancers are not swans. They are proud Spanish dancers. Their backs are straight. Their wrists snap back, their chests lift.
"Spanish Nights," this year's performance by the Steamboat Ballet School of Dance, opens with a flamenco dance called "Latin Quartet."
Mimi Hill, Lisa Harner, dance-school owner Stephanie Reese and Raina Severinghaus start with their backs to the audience.
Instead of ballet slippers, they are wearing black high-heeled shoes.
They snap open their fans and turn to face the audience.
Off stage, 10 thin, muscular girls stretch their long legs in preparation for the dance.
They look like white-petaled flowers with their stiff, platter tutus and dark leotard bodies. Heavy-toed ballet shoes slap against the floor as the girls get into position.
Their giggling and pushing suddenly turns to grace as the first dancer elevates to her toes, the pink ribbons winding up her ankles, her arms rounded above her head, her face stoic.
They open their fans just like the four women.
Every time the group takes the stage, Hill can't help but look around at the young girls who remind her of herself decades ago.
Now a mother of four in her early 40s, Hill is returning to the stage after 14 years away.
"I fell in love with dancing when I was 6 years old and danced all the way through my second pregnancy," Hill said. "But I just had too many babies and had to quit."
Like most dancers, Hill lived out much of her career in her teenage and early adult years. She was touring and choreographing at the age of 16 and danced in college for The Moving Company in Bellevue, Wash.
In the early '80s, marriage took her to the Bay Area in California where she still danced, but her third and fourth child kept her busy at home and off the dance floor.
When the Hills moved to Steamboat Springs in the fall of 2000, she had no idea this mountain town held her doorway back to the stage.
Hill was taking an exercise class in the spring of 2001 when her instructor approached her.
"She had been watching me and she wanted to know if I was a dancer," Hill said. The teacher invited Hill to the upcoming audition for the Steamboat Dance Theater.
Hill walked into auditions without practicing and with nothing prepared.
"I was scared," she said. "I just walked in without preparing because I knew they were not going to want me anyway."
But they did want her.
"It was fun to get my feet wet again," she said. "I was really nervous, but it was a fantastic boon to my confidence."
Hill quickly became entrenched in the Steamboat dance scene, as a performer and soon as an instructor at the Steamboat Ballet School of Dance.
Tonight and tomorrow night, Hill will dance with "the old ladies" as she calls them.
"We are all 40-plus moms except for Raina, who is 17 years old," Hill said. "We love to dance and Stephanie Reese lets us get out there and be old ladies dancing."
Reese lets everyone dance, Hill said.
"She knows what favoritism feels like, and she doesn't allow it in her studio," she said. "Not all of those girls are going to become professional dancers, but they will have the poise and balance and confidence that you get from dancing on stage for the rest of your life."
Reese choreographed the night of dances from the music of three famous Spanish ballets: "Carmen," "Don Quixote" and "Paquita."
"I got the idea from my photographer last year," Reese said. "She said that we should do a Spanish ballet so that she could have a red backdrop."
Reese, a Texas native, opened her own dance school in 1999. Her family moved to Steamboat when her father retired; they help her put on the production.
"My dad helped with the programs (and the music), and my mom is home right now sewing costumes," Reese said. "I'm a single mother on top of it all. I don't think I could do this without them."