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Creating a swan for Hollywood

Charlotte native Mary Helen Bowers danced her way through childhood, through school, through 10 years with the New York City Ballet.

At 31, she's dancing less often now. She still lives in New York and is busy teaching. Bowers' business, Ballet Beautiful, uses ballet training techniques to develop the bodies of people who are not ballet dancers.

Lately, though, Bowers has taught in an unexpected arena - Hollywood.

Two years ago, film director Darren Aronofsky hired her to train actress Natalie Portman for her role in the thriller "Black Swan," which opened this month.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, lead ballerina in a fictional company's production of "Swan Lake." To prepare, Bowers pushed Portman through a punishing regimen of stretches, exercises, choreography and steps - at times for six hours per day, six days per week, while Portman worked on other films. It paid off.

"Her performance is incredible," said Bowers, who saw the film at its Hollywood premiere last month at Grauman's Chinese Theater. "I had the highest expectations of her, because she was so great every day, and she even exceeded my expectations. It was just really, really cool to see."

Life with Natalie

The two started working together in October 2008, when Portman was working on "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits." At first they trained for two hours a day, gradually building up Portman's inner thighs, hamstrings and buttocks - the critical muscles for balance and flexibility - before moving on to longer and harder workouts.

Training began in Los Angeles and moved to Belfast, Ireland, when Portman began filming for "Your Highness." Sometimes they would start at 5 a.m. Other days, they would begin in the evening after a 12-hour filming day. Through it all, Bowers said, Portman was a champ. It helped that she had taken ballet lessons as a child.

"She has an unbelievable work ethic. She was so committed to this role," Bowers said. "The idea was that to play a professional ballerina, you have to look like one... She did an incredible job of balancing that with her regular life. It's a major commitment."

Portman's commitment echoed Bowers' own.

Bowers' parents - Fred, an accountant, and Carrie, a retired school librarian - enrolled her in ballet classes when she was 3. Mary Helen quit soon after but picked it up at age 8 when some of her friends started taking classes.

Soon, Bowers realized she was good at it. What's more, she loved it - the discipline, the physical challenge. She began studying with Gay Porter at the Charlotte School of Ballet on Sharon Amity Road and started turning heads.

"I don't think she realized how good she was - and I didn't tell her, because I wanted her to keep working," said Porter, who founded the school in 1968. "She kept coming to class; she never missed; she was never late; she always had her equipment. Mummy didn't have to take care of it: 'Oh, here's your leotard; here are your shoes.' She took care of everything herself."

'This crazy thing'

As a student at Alexander Graham Middle, Bowers would have gone to Myers Park High. She went to New York instead, enrolling at the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet's school. A year later, she joined the ballet company, performing at Lincoln Center and around the world.

"It's always been this crazy thing I just loved doing," she said. "It wasn't because it was something someone wanted me to do or because I was really good at it. I just always loved to do it."

She left in 2005, in part to pursue a college degree. Then she hit on the idea of taking the cross-training lessons she learned over her decade as a professional dancer and starting a business with it.

Ballet Beautiful aims to help build tensile strength and flexibility in the muscles used in dancing; Bowers works with clients at their homes. She used the same techniques on Portman, and it shows: A New York Times writer recently rhapsodized over the actress' "sinewy, lean muscles" and "upright carriage."

Setting her sights

Carrie Bowers, who still lives with her husband off Carmel Road in south Charlotte, said she's not surprised her daughter worked with a Hollywood actress. But Mary Helen's business sense took her aback, she said.

"She always said, 'I am going to be a ballet dancer.' Her daddy and I were going, 'Oh, Mary Helen, that's almost impossible for someone from Charlotte to do.' We thought she was setting her sights way too high," Carrie Bowers said. "Then, when we were leaving her in New York, we had gone through the Lincoln Tunnel, and we looked back at the city. My husband said, 'I know she's where she should be.'"