13-year-old Ella Justi is headed to Princess Grace Academy in Monaco after winning a coveted one-year scholarship
PORT ST. LUCIE – Like most 13-year-olds on the Treasure Coast, Ella Justi will begin her final year of middle school this fall but unlike many will not be attending a campus close to home. Instead, she will begin classes with Florida Virtual School nearly 5,000 miles from her family after winning a dance scholarship to the prestigious Princess Grace Academy in Monaco on the French Riviera.
Ella made her debut ballet performance as an angel in the Nutcracker at age seven and currently studies ballet for 20 hours a week at the Florida School for Dance Education in Palm Beach Gardens where her mother Leslie Justi is an instructor, She got word in March that Princess Grace Academy officials might offer her a one-week scholarship, but all that changed upon attending the Youth America Grand Prix finals in New York City the following month.
“Miss Larissa Saveliev, the director of YAGP, asked me to send her an audition video so they could send it to their partner schools,” she recalled. “I did not know which schools, but I did mention that I was interested in Princess Grace Academy. While I was attending the Youth America Grand Prix finals, I was approached by the scholarship coordinator to tell me the Academy director, Luca Masala, wanted me for the whole year on full scholarship starting in September. I was so excited and surprised, I burst into tears.”
Ella is one of only 10 students from around the globe receiving the honor of a first-year scholarship, which covers tuition and room and board in dormitory-style housing on the campus. Although she has always been home-schooled and utilized Florida Virtual School curriculum for the last year, she’s now having to study French, a core requirement and the official language of the kingdom where she’ll be staying.
“The Academy wants us to arrive knowing some basic things like the alphabet, colors and days of the week,” she said.
Ella’s mother herself is a former professional ballet performer who began dancing when she was 11 years old in nearby Palm City where her family moved from her native New York. After studying at the South Florida Ballet Academy and winning a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School at the University of Hartford, she began her professional career with the Hartford Ballet. Through the course of her professional career, Ms. Justi danced for the Memphis Ballet, the Bay Ballet Theater in Tampa and the Colorado Ballet where she also served as a faculty instructor before relocating back to Palm City with her husband Aaron and three children in 2015, the same year Ella made her dance debut. Ms. Justi said she was not surprised her middle child is following in her own professional footsteps because Ella “was dancing and interpreting music as soon as she could move.”
“I could see the love for dance and the physical gifts at a young age, but she is so much better,” she said comparing Ella to herself. “As a ballet teacher, I knew she has what it takes to attend an international ballet academy. The hard part is usually getting seen. I am so grateful that YAGP facilitated an opportunity for Ella to be seen by these great schools.”
Mother and daughter actually preformed together in a production of the Nutcracker in 2019 put on by the Florida School for Dance Education’s non-profit Dance Theater of Florida.
“When Ella was Clara the Nutcracker, I played Frau Stahlbaum, Clara's mom,” Ms. Justi explained.
As both Ella’s ballet instructor and mother, the retired ballet star says she is sometimes awestruck watching her own daughter improvise during live dance performances.
“As her teacher, I love when she is right in the moment on stage,” she said. “You can see she is not thinking but just dancing. All the hard work was already done in rehearsal, and she can just be in her dancing. She goes into a zone and will do things we never saw in rehearsal. I had to learn to trust her and her instincts on stage, but it is special.”
For her part, Ella said she finds the ability to express her feelings through dance movements particularly rewarding.
“I also love the discipline of dance,” she said. “It's so beautiful.”
Although the family only recently relocated to a new home in Port St. Lucie in February, mother and daughter are now preparing for the young dancer’s move again, this time to the small Principality of Monaco wedged between France and Italy.
“I will be going with Ella and staying for a little while when she starts,” she added. “We will be visiting frequently. I look forward to going to all her performances.”
When Ella leaves this September, she will say au revoir – at least for a while – to her father, older brother Aidan, 16, and young sister, Lillian, 7, who herself began competing in ballet performances this year.
“The hardest thing will be saying goodbye to family, friends and teachers,” Ella admitted.
Although she is guaranteed her first full year at Princess Grace Academy, the young ballerina will have to prove herself to school officials in order to secure the three additional years of scholarships needed to graduate. If she succeeds, Ella believes the wealth of experience gleaned from top-tier dance professionals on the campus will propel her into a professional career as her own mother’s Hartford Scholarship did years ago. She also explained why Princess Grace Academy was her preferred choice of global dance academies from the onset.
“The classical training is amazing, but so is the contemporary training,” she said. “Also, the small class sizes. All of the graduates get contracts with professional companies.”
Princess Grace Academy was founded in 1975 by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III in order to establish a high-level dance school in the Principality of Monaco. Although the former actress and namesake of the school died in an automobile accident in 1982, the Academy lived on and thrived under the direction of renowned ballet artist and instructor Marika Besobrasova, who also taught ballet to the royal couple’s daughter, Caroline the Princess of Hanover. In 2009, Princess Caroline appointed the current Artistic Director Luca Masala. The goal of the Academy is to perfect the dance training of young students between the ages of 13 and 18 and facilitate their incorporation into a leading international dance company upon graduation.
For more information on the Academy where Ella will study, visit the website at www.balletsdemontecarlo.com/en/princess-grace-academy and then click on The Academy under the dropdown menu under Academie Princesse Grace.