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Larissa Savliev teaches class at YAGP. Courtesy YAGP.

It's hard to imagine the ballet landscape today without Youth America Grand Prix. The annual competition attracts thousands of young dancers from all over the world, many hoping to win a scholarship to a major ballet school. This year, which marks the organization's 20th anniversary, roughly 12,000 students participated in YAGP's semi-finals in 32 cities here and abroad, and over 1,000 are in New York City this week for the final round. The stage at last night's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala was packed during the student defilé (kudos to them for not knocking each other over!), while top alumni—including Kimin Kim, Isabella Boylston, and Hee Seo—made triumphant returns.

In recent years, other scholarship competitions have popped up around the country. But before YAGP was founded 20 years ago, it was a much different story. For bunheads, "competition" was almost a dirty word, one associated with back flips, hulking trophies and flashy jazz studios. And that's exactly where YAGP co-founder Larissa Saveliev found herself in the late '90s. She and her husband, YAGP co-founder Gennadi Saveliev, had defected from Russia a few years earlier, and the former Bolshoi Ballet dancer and new mom was teaching ballet at a studio in New Jersey. On weekends, she would travel with the school to jazz competitions, an experience she found deflating.

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