His bubbly personality infects an entire room. Spending just five minutes with him is enough for him to make you feel as if you've been best friends for years. Everyone knows him – you can't go anywhere with him without people stopping to say hi. He's incredibly goofy and hilarious, yet he has the wisdom of someone twice his age.
Who is this kid?
That's the question most people seem to ask themselves when they meet Brent Shelton for the first time.
Shelton grew up in Cary, North Carolina, where he attended Cary Academy, a school that sent kids to the Ivy Leagues – not art school. Up until he was 16, he had been a swimmer at Cary Academy and a singer in the Raleigh Boys Choir, but in 10th grade, he told his mom that he wanted to try ballet.
So, he did. He took an introductory class and fell deeply in love with ballet almost immediately. Soon after, he started searching out ballet companies and found the Cary Ballet Conservatory. He started taking classes there, and before he knew it, he had joined their studio program and was dancing six days a week.
"They believed in me," said Shelton. "They needed more male dancers, so they really pushed on me that it wasn't too late to start dancing."
Shelton knew he had a lot of catching up to do. He didn't let that intimidate him; instead, he used it as motivation to push himself harder and harder. Over the course of a year, he improved by a great amount, moving up several skill levels at CBC.
"He really wanted to learn," said his dance instructor at CBC, Heather Iler. "He had a strong work ethic, and he always had a hunger to learn even more than what we were doing."
By summer 2017, Shelton had been accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's Summer Intensive program in New York, an incredible accomplishment for someone who had only been dancing for one year. It was there in New York that Shelton met Katie Ripley, a friend who would later also attend Butler.
It was a casual Saturday afternoon in New York, and Ripley and some other friends decided to go on a bike ride. A mutual friend decided to bring Shelton, who showed up dressed in full ballet attire.
"I thought to myself, 'who is this kid?" Ripley said. "Does he know we're going biking?"
Later, she found out that Shelton had just come from a photoshoot in Central Park, hence the choice in outfit.
The group chose to grab some water before heading out, and Ripley recalls standing in line and turning around to see Shelton doing the splits on the floor in the middle of Starbucks.
"He's crazy and fun," Ripley said. "There's never a dull moment with him. He's always doing something unexpected."
His senior year, Shelton began to seriously consider dance as a career. He had never considered becoming a professional dancer before, but after attending Bolshoi, he decided that it was something he could potentially do.
"Bolshoi really opened my eyes to how far you can push yourself," Shelton said. "I think it taught me that even though I was miserable and working so hard, I loved dancing, so I didn't really mind."
Shelton decided to apply to Butler's Jordan College of the Arts, a school he hadn't even heard of before considering dance. He auditioned for the dance program, and he really liked it. The audition went well – in August, Shelton started his first year at Butler, along with 18 other dance performance majors.
His experience at Butler has been very eye-opening so far. At home, Shelton exclusively studied ballet. Now, he has also been taking classes in modern and jazz.
This new challenge has been one that Shelton has made the most of. Sometimes, though, he struggles not to compare himself to the other dancers, who have been studying dance their whole life.
"Sometimes, I think I'm the worst dancer here," Shelton said.
But when he starts to doubt his talent, Shelton recalls something one of his strictest professors, Cynthia Pratt, told all the dancers.
"It doesn't matter where you trained at home," Pratt said. "It doesn't matter how long you've been training. When you auditioned here, we only saw what we saw in the audition, and based off that, we decided whether or not you could become professional dancers."
So, when insecurity strikes, he remembers those words.
"They put me here for a reason," Shelton said. "And I have to trust that I'm good enough to become a successful professional dancer."
This winter, Shelton was given the role of Fritz in the Butler Ballet – a spunky character whose star moment involves stealing the spotlight from his sister and breaking her gift out of jealousy.
"I thought the role was perfect for him," said Colleen Kirby, a close friend of Shelton. "He was so sassy, and it was so funny."
One of Shelton's favorite ballet memories comes from rehearsing for the Nutcracker. He was warming up at the bar, and someone was playing Christmas carols on the piano. Naturally, his instinct was to loudly sing along. His singing quickly spread to the other dancers, and they all sang along together, until suddenly everyone around him stopped.
"I was like, 'you all suck!' and kept singing," Shelton said. "But then I turned around, and our ballet director, Larry Attaway, was just standing there looking at me. It was really embarrassing."
Shelton never lets anything embarrass him or make him nervous for too long, though. Before coming to Butler, he had never performed on a stage as large as the one at Clowes Memorial Hall, but that didn't intimidate him. He was excited; he couldn't wait to be onstage.
An ongoing joke in the Butler ballet program is that Shelton is like Svetlana Zarkova. According to Shelton, she's one of the best dancers in the world, so it's only natural for himself to go by her name. He recalls that Zarkova said in an interview once that if she gets nervous to perform, then she is professionally useless.
"If I'm nervous to perform, I'm not a performer," Shelton said. "You just have to cast it away and turn it into excitement."
You don't have to see Shelton perform to understand his love for ballet. He can be found dancing anywhere he goes, whether he's leaping through the hallway of his dorm building or casually doing the splits at Irwin Library.
"I love watching Brent dance because he loves it so much," Callie Cece, Shelton's closest friend from high school, said. "When you watch him, it's so obvious that it's his passion."
Shelton's dream is to become a professional dancer and hopefully one day open his own studio. His biggest concern isn't being the best or making it big; instead, he wants to focus on making dance an art form that everyone can connect to. He feels as though ballet has been lost to everyone except the older generations, and he wants to change that.
Despite his joke about being Svetlana Zarkova, there is nothing that would disappoint Shelton more than ending up like her.
"She's amazing," Shelton said. "She's one of the best ballet dancers in the world, yet hardly anyone outside the dance community knows who she is. She has had no impact on anyone's life that wasn't a dancer, and that's my worst nightmare."
Shelton yearns to change the world. He wants to make a difference by erasing the stigma that lies within the dance community regarding body type and make dance something that everyone can take part in.
His desire to do great things is apparent to all those around him. It's incredibly difficult not to notice the passion that Shelton has in his soul. Any time he speaks, he captivates the attention of those around him.
"Brent is constantly talking to me about how he thinks what he's doing isn't enough," Kirby said. "He always wants to do more. He wants to do something with dance that matters and makes a difference."
Dance has taught Shelton a lot of life lessons since he first discovered it. Now, he can't even imagine what his life was like without dance, despite only having been a dancer for two years. To him, it's like he's been dancing forever.
"I'm so grateful I found dance," Shelton said. "It's changed the way I see everything. It gives me purpose for everything I do."