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ABSAROKEE -- Five years ago, Claire von Nieda would never have dreamed she'd be wearing 3-inch heels in the Absarokee High School gymnasium.

But the former volleyball and basketball player was back in Absarokee this week, teaching ballroom dancing to elementary and high school students at her alma mater.

"It's interesting to see how much progress they've made since Tuesday," she said, noting how quickly many of the high school students had warmed up to the idea. "On Tuesday, they were pretty shy. Now they're picking up steps."

During practice sessions, the 2006 Absarokee High graduate was decked out in casual clothes. But the 3-inch heels on her feet offered a hint of what is to come Friday evening when she's all "glitter and glam" for a public performance.

Von Nieda graduated from Brigham Young University this spring with a degree in public administration and is set to continue her studies there in the master's program. Meanwhile, she can retain her position as a member of the honored Backup Tour Team with the Brigham Young University Dance Company.

Before leaving Absarokee, her dance experience consisted of a few classes in tap under the guidance of local instructor Carla Buell. During her sophomore year at BYU, she ventured into the dance world again.

"My mother thought I should learn to waltz for my wedding," von Nieda said, smiling.

So she enrolled in a basic dance class and ended up liking it so much she decided to pursue it with a passion.

"There's something about dance that just connects your soul to the music," she said. "It's really infectious."

BYU hosts the largest collegiate dance program in the world. The school's dance company, which competes nationally, was formed in 1953 and has  earned the school dozens of prestigious honors. On May 3, three members of the company will perform on "Dancing with the Stars."

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But it's not just for the elite. According to von Nieda, nearly 85 percent of the student body at BYU enrolls for at least one basic dance class.

During the past 3-½ years, von Nieda has worked her way through an accelerated program aimed at helping her catch up with dancers who had been dancing since a young age. With guidance from a private coach and hours and hours of practice -- team members typically average four to five hours a day -- she mastered the ballet, jazz and ballroom techniques to make her competitive.

Last spring, as a thank you to the community that has long supported her, she showcased her talents with a small performance for Absarokee's elementary classes. This year, she added several days of instruction and invited a few of her teammates, including former dance partner Mike Foncannon, to join her.

"It just shows them (students) a little something they may have never seen before, or only on 'Dancing with the Stars,'" von Nieda said. "It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it gives them the chance to try something else."

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