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Dancers perform during the 2018 Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-finals dance competition in Toronto on March 10, 2018.Mark Blinch

To go home a winner from the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the world’s foremost student dance competition, you need talent, virtuosity and a certain je ne sais quoi. But in the wings of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s theatre on Saturday afternoon, the first contest was for space.

Dozens of teenaged girls – wearing some combination of fake eyelashes, rhinestones, leotards and spandex – vied for little patches of the floor on which they could pull their limbs into joint-defying stretches or smooth out a glitch in a tricky turn. In the world of dance competitions, behind-the-scenes muscle-flexing comes in the form of a perfectly executed triple pirouette.

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Lexi Erbentraut 15, of Grand Rapids, Mich., prepares with her mother Kari.Mark Blinch

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Valerie Lau 14, of Markham, has her makeup applied by teacher Georgia Leung.Mark Blinch

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Dancers laugh backstage at the YAGP regional semi-finals.Mark Blinch

The YAGP finals don’t take place until April in New York, but the organization travels around the world in the months leading up to the main event, giving dancers aged 9 to 19 in Europe, Asia, North and South America a chance to audition. On the weekend, hundreds of dancers from all over the country and parts of the United States descended on Toronto to perform routines for an expert panel of judges and take part in a variety of master classes. For 19 years, the YAGP has helped realize many dancing dreams, offering more than US$250,000 a year in scholarships to the finest dance schools, and contracts with leading companies around the world.

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Racquel Sherlock, 16, prepares backstage.Mark Blinch

Competing can be stressful for young dancers and Racquel Sherlock and Charis Leung, both 16, say it’s great to go with a friend. “It’s a lot more comforting!” Sherlock tells me after she’s completed her contemporary routine, a technically challenging solo that showcased her musicality and athleticism. “Friends support you, give you corrections and prepare you for the stage.”

Sherlock and Leung train together at the Academy of Ballet and Jazz in Thornhill, Ont., where they rehearse for long hours after school and on weekends. Both hope to dance professionally, but their short-term goals are about staying emotionally grounded on stage.

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Dancers wait backstage for their turn to perform.Mark Blinch

“I just want to make the judges and the audience feel something and not just focus so much on technique,” Sherlock explains.

“I really want to connect with whoever I’m dancing for,” Leung says.

For a group of younger dancers from the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Wixom, Mich., the challenges are more basic. After performing an Ossetian character dance in traditional costumes from the South Caucasus, they rush off stage in a flurry of joyful relief.

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Dancers embrace backstage before performing.Mark Blinch

“At first, I was very nervous,” says 11-year-old Haruna Nishio. “But right now, I’m feeling really relaxed and I’m happier.”

“It’s a very serious dance,” says soft-spoken Nina Kobayashi, 10, under her stately fur hat. “But it’s also very exciting.”

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