ROCK ISLAND -- The peach ballet shoes soon will wear out, but they're an extension of her body for now.
"I started pointe when I was 12 years old. They've been a part of my feet for a long time," Margaret Huling said.
The wear and tear from constant use means that each pair of shoes, which allow ballerinas to dance on the tips of their toes, usually only last a week for the Ballet Quad Cities dancer.
"Since I've been here, I've gone through roughly 25 to 30 pairs a year," she said.
The Ballet Quad Cities contract is about 28 weeks, beginning in late August and ending in May. Ms. Huling started dancing with Ballet Quad Cities in 2004.
She said pointe shoes are constructed from layers of fabric and glue, and some fit perfectly, while others don't feel quite right. "They're all handmade. Like dance, they're not all the same," she said. When she finds a perfect match, she tucks them away for performances.
Before putting on this pair, she first folded up paper towels. She slipped an "ouch pouch" stuffed with paper towels over each foot before putting on the pointe shoe. Ms. Huling said the paper towels provide some cushion, "so my toes don't get bruised."
She always had blisters growing up but doesn't get them often now. "The older I've gotten, the tougher they've gotten," she said of her feet.
When Ms. Huling rises to her toes her focus is on making her entire body's movements exact -- from the expression on her face to the reach of her arms to the angle created where each foot meets the ground.
She has no memories of life without ballet.
"I was the little girl watching full-length ballets on VHS instead of TV," Ms. Huling said.
She spent a lot of time growing up at the ballet studio run by her mother, who still teaches ballet and once danced with Grand Rapids Civic Ballet in Michigan.
"I grew up a 'classical bun-head,'" Ms. Huling said.
She started taking dance lessons at age 3 at her mother's studio and joined Ballet Arts Ensemble, a youth ballet, when she was 12. During her last two years of high school, she took college-level ballet classes at Western Michigan University as part of the dual enrollment program through the Kalamazoo public schools.
In college, Ms. Huling majored in ballet and earned a bachelor of fine arts at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
The 29-year-old dancer said her favorite part of dancing is performing. She said the work ahead of a performance can get repetitive and be frustrating, but the performance itself is "a big release. It's what we work for."
Ms. Huling said performing means she gets to share her art, which is what she loves to do. She still gets butterflies when she takes to the stage.
"Overall, when I'm on stage, my body feels happy," she said.
Because ballet dancers do not speak on stage, Ms. Huling said performing is "telling a story with our body language" and acting without words. "You have to show it," she said.
Sometimes telling the story can be extra challenging. In 2010, for the role of Tatiana -- a Russian ballerina, vampire and princess from the book "I, Vampire" -- Ms. Huling said she "really had to dig in" and "try to find a way to interpret this character from a book without seeing it anywhere else." She watched videos of Russian ballerinas and changed how she moved.
Ms. Huling knows she wants to perform for a few more years, but she isn't sure when she'll stop.
"I plan to dance until I ..." she said, trailing off before adding that it was a hard question to answer. "I'm not ready yet. I think the day I'm ready, I'll know." She has no intention of letting go of dance completely when that time comes, though.
"I would love to continue teaching and choreographing. I'd love to do more choreography," she said.
Ms. Huling choreographed "Configurations" for Ballet Quad Cities a few years ago and has choreographed one of her mother's shows.
In October, Ms. Huling became ballet mistress for Ballet Quad Cities, which means that, in addition to performing, she spends some time teaching the professional dancers and running rehearsals.
"This is a direction in my career I was hoping to go," she said. "If everything goes well, this will make my transition out of performing a lot easier."
Ms. Huling said she's learning how to become more of a leader in the company. "I have seen this company grow so much over the past seven years. My hope is I can help to make it even better," she said.
Ms. Huling has taught ballet students for Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance since she moved to the Quad-Cities to dance with Ballet Quad Cities in 2004 and also has taught at her mother's studio.
"What I love about teaching is being able to pass on the legacy of dance to students, the younger generation," she said.
On a recent day, the quiet studio was transformed as Ms. Huling's students filed in, chatting away before heading into class. All wore their hair in buns and peeled off their outer clothes to reveal black leotards and white tights.
Once class was underway, Ms. Huling moved throughout the room, nudging the students' feet with her own when they weren't placed quite right, correcting other movements and giving compliments.
"Nice!" she said to one girl.
Later, Ms. Huling reminded them to think about their heads, noting that they shouldn't forget about anything else, either, such as their legs.
"This portrait is very important," she said, indicating her face with a motion of her hand. "The general population is looking right here."
She gave them more instructions and then momentarily could not find the word she wanted them to embody.
"What's the word?" she asked.
"Proud," a young brunette said clearly.
She was right.
Living the dream
Who: Margaret Huling, professional ballet dancer and ballet mistress for Ballet Quad Cities
Quote: "Overall, when I'm on stage, my body feels happy."