As a younger child, 11-year-old Kayde McNelley was painfully shy, but when she strapped on her first pair of dance slippers, it was like donning a suit of emotional armor.
"I was always comfortable onstage. I'm not sure why," Kayde said. "When I try hard, I can do a lot more than I think I can."
Kayde took up tap dancing at a Ringgold dance studio three years ago after friends at school showed her what they were learning in their own lessons.
At the time, her parents said, Kayde was withdrawn and felt homesick even when she visited her grandparents in Ringgold or nearby Tunnel Hill, Ga.
Within months of taking up lessons, however, she was transformed.
"The first time she got onstage, I was so nervous. I thought she would just stand there," said Christen McNelley, 30. "I honestly couldn't believe that was my daughter. It was like a totally different kid."
Dancing wasn't always a joy, Kayde said. When she first took up tap dancing, she said, she was often frustrated by the speed she learned new techniques compared to the other students, many of whom had been taking lessons for years.
Within months, however, Kayde began to feel more comfortable. After one of her first recitals, she saw a video of herself dancing, and it was like a switch was flipped. Suddenly, dancing was enjoyable, she said.
CLAIM TO FAME
In two years of competitive performance, Kayde McNelley has danced at two national competitions. At this year's competition in Panama City, Fla., she won the platinum award as the No. 1 overall Level 1 junior soloist. She has received numerous other platinum medals at regional competitions.
• Age: 11 (turns 12 Dec. 10).
• School: Sixth-grader at Heritage Middle School in Ringgold, Ga.
• Favorite dance style: Musical theater.
• Favorite dance technique: Elbow stands and contortion.
• Favorite movie: "Bring It On" and "Return of the Living Dead."
• Pets: A cat, Napoleon (Popo), and a fish, Jessica.
• People she would like to meet: Lady Gaga and Sonya Tayeh.
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"I got the hang of it, and now I love learning new stuff," Kayde said. "By the time competition season got started, I was used to it and could do more."
Kayde began participating in dance competitions six months into her training. She won her first first-place medal as part of a tap-dance team.
In 2010, Kayde joined the STAR Company, an elite dance team at StarMaker Talent Dance Company in Ringgold.
Until joining the squad, Kayde was taking three classes a week at StarMaker. As a member of the elite team, however, she has taken on a more strenuous regimen, including additional classes on technique, conditioning, stretching, acrobatics and gymnastics.
The requirements of being on the squad have affected Kayde's social life, but she said the rewards are worth it.
"I enjoy the dancing a lot, but I sacrifice a lot for dancing," she said.
The dedication to mastering her art form is paying off. This year, Kayde competed in six regional competitions and placed first or second at every one. She also took home a platinum award and first overall among Level 1 junior soloists at the Platinum National Dance Competition in Panama City, Fla.
StarMaker owner Melissa Hall awarded Kayde the studio's SuperStar award this year for her dedication and for setting a good example to the more than 100 students who study there.
Kayde's ability to interpret instructions and internalizing direction from her instructor sets her apart from her peers, Hall said.
"She breaks everything down in her head differently than most children," she said. "A lot of kids are like 'monkey see, monkey do,' but with Kayde, I can tell her what to do, and she visualizes it on her own.
"She's just a natural dancer."