While Erika Shi warmed up for her classes at Canton Ballet, she would often read a book for her English class.

While she stretched, she’d review note cards for an upcoming test.

When she needed extra study time, she would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m.

Such is the life of an aspiring ballerina who must balance the demands of her craft — hours of practice five to six days a week — with a rigorous course load.

By all accounts, Shi, 18, the valedictorian at Alliance High School and a 2018 Akron Beacon Journal Star Student, excelled in this challenge.

“She is very creative in how she works her study time into her schedule,” said Laura Bryan, a counselor at Alliance High School. “She’s an awesome girl.”

Shi didn’t always aspire to be a ballerina. She originally wanted to be a dentist.

Shi took her first ballet class when she was 5 — a convenience because it was near where her brother’s art course was taught. She enjoyed dance, but it became a true passion in her freshman year of high school when she began to perform more.

“That feeling of being on stage and being able to express myself was something I completely fell in love with,” she said.

Shi earned key roles in Canton Ballet performances, including playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker several times, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and the Little Mermaid.

In her junior year, Shi found a way to combine her love of dance with her studies when she examined how ballet shoes influence the growth of bacteria on dancers’ feet. The project earned her an excellent rating at the Science Alliance Science Day.

“Our feet smell really bad after class,” she said. “In the locker room, when we take off our pointe shoes, there’s a waft of odors. I wondered how much bacteria is on our feet.”

Shi learned that pointe shoes, the harder shoes worn in ballet that have several layers to protect dancers’ toes, produce a lot more bacteria than other dance shoes.

“It’s disgusting if you think about it,” Shi said, laughing.

During the school year, Shi’s dance schedule consisted of ballet class five to six days a week, sometimes with just Fridays off. On weekdays, the practices were from 5 to 9 p.m. and she’d arrive an hour early to warm up. On the weekend, she had class from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both days.

Asked who has been her greatest influence, Shi pointed to Cassandra Crowley, the artistic and executive director of the Canton Ballet.

“Sometimes, she can come off as stern because she knows what’s best for us even when we don’t think so,” Shi said. “She truly cares about everyone at the Canton Ballet. I think, without her strict discipline, I would not have the discipline to be this hard-working and put so much into ballet and into school.”

Crowley, who has been with the Canton Ballet since 1980, likewise had positive things to say about her young protege. She said Shi has developed into “a really amazing dancer,” excelling in both ballet and modern dance.

“She’s very hard-working and focused,” Crowley said. “She knows what she wants and works to get it.”

Before starting college in the fall, Shi plans to take a trip to China to visit family. Then, she’ll return to the Canton Ballet to train for the University of Cincinnati College’s Conservatory of Music, where she will major in ballet and double minor in mathematics and entrepreneurship

“The dream is to become a professional dancer with a company — big or small,” Shi said. “If I can dance, I’ll be happy.”

Eventually, Shi would like to work on the administrative side of dance as an advocate for more funding and try to “make arts in general more accessible to the public.”

Shi hopes her career path might some day bring her back to Stark County and the Canton Ballet, possibly as a guest instructor or choreographer.

“Stark County has really helped with my passion,” she said. “I’m so fortunate to have discovered the Canton Ballet.”

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmithabj and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith.