Summit County resident sets her sights on title of Miss Utah
One Summit County resident is used to taking the stage as a professional ballerina, but she hopes to hit center stage for a different reason Saturday while competing to be the next Miss Utah.
Hannah Sterling took a step back from dancing with Salt Lake City’s Ballet West last year and when her aunt heard that, she said Sterling should try her hand at pageants.
Sterling was initially unconvinced.
“There’s no way after doing a professional dance career I’m going to do another competition,” Sterling recalled with a laugh.
But after seeing the Miss Lehi Scholarship Competition in person, she thought, “Oh, my gosh, these women doing this competition are such go-getters, so strong and independent. …
“It was like Elle Woods waking up and saying, ‘I’m going to law school.’ I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to do a pageant.’”
While Sterling was diving into a new passion, she was also working on a project that is close to her heart and had long been on her mind: connecting ballet classes to kids who might not be able to otherwise afford them.
She started a nonprofit last year called Project L.E.A.P., which has grown enough to require two classes every Saturday in space donated by Creative Arts Academy in Bountiful.
She said she started thinking about the idea before she was a professional dancer when she was doing outreach shows in her hometown of Philadelphia. She and her classmates would drop in and teach kids a few steps, but she knew the kids wouldn’t be able to afford more instruction.
The point hit home when she was on tour with Ballet West in Snowflake, Arizona.
“A little girl came up to me, her name was Emily, she had tears in her eyes and told me, ‘I want to dance just like you, can you please teach me?’” Sterling said. “How do you tell a girl I have to go back to Utah, I can’t teach you?”
Project L.E.A.P. teaches about 50 kids each week, broken up into two classes, one for kids 6 years and under, and another for dancers age 7 and up. Before the first class last September, Sterling said it was nerve-wracking waiting to see if anybody would show up.
She put flyers at the food pantry, library and super market, and put some ads online. She was happy to see seven kids walk through the doors for the first class, and said the growth from there “has just been amazing.”
Sterling touts the hard work, discipline and respect she learned from dancing and described how rewarding it was to see one student progress from not being able to tell left from right to being the first one to volunteer to lead the group in a new exercise.
She hopes to grow the project across the state and the country, but right now the project is on summer holiday as its founder competes to be the next Miss America.
Sterling, 24, is Miss Timpanogos 2019, the same title Jesse Craig had before she won Miss Utah last year. Sterling is one of 53 candidates vying for the title, a $10,000 scholarship and the chance to represent the Beehive State on the national stage.
She’s been rehearsing a dance for the talent portion of the event, which accounts for 50 percent of the final score. It will be set to the Coldplay song “Viva la Vida” as performed by violinist David Garrett. This is the first year the event will not include a swimsuit competition.
The field will be winnowed to a dozen finalists for the Saturday show, with one being selected by fan voting.
Sterling said competing in beauty pageants can be “cutthroat,” and the competitors generally do not know each other. She said her strategy is to avoid distractions to make sure she maintains focus before going on stage. It’s different than being part of a dance company, which while competitive in its own right, can be like a family.
She relies on some former colleagues from the company to help teach classes for Project L.E.A.P. and she said she’s had support from nearly everyone she’s approached about the idea.
“They all want to give back; if you have a talent, you want to share it,” Sterling said. “If you know something at a really good level, to pass that on, that’s priceless. What good is that talent if it’s all bottled up?”
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