COLUMBIA — From an early age, Melanie Auinbauh knew what she wanted to do with her life.
"When I was 2, I told my mom I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up," she said. "My mom didn't even know I knew what a ballerina was."
From that age, Auinbauh has been hooked on the idea. She began taking ballet classes at age 3 and hasn't stopped since.
Auinbauh is a sophomore at MU and the youngest professional dancer in Columbia's Missouri Contemporary Ballet. She's in her second year with the group, and in November she performed in the show "Falling."
Auinbauh balances dance with her responsibilities as a nutrition and fitness major. She plans to apply to physical therapy school at the end of her junior year. She became familiar with physical therapy when she was young because of dance injuries that had her repeatedly seeking rehabilitation.
It was an injury, in fact, that prompted Auinbauh to come to Columbia. With her left foot out of commission from two stress fractures, she realized she would have to make plans in her life that did not include dance, and she began applying to colleges that would help her become a physical therapist.
"I chose physical therapy because I wanted to help other people," she said.
Helping others is characteristic of Auinbauh, her fellow ballet dancer and friend Noelle Lelakus said. "Melanie is very generous with her time."
When her foot recovered better than she anticipated, Auinbauh began to ponder dancing again. She looked online for a dance company to join in Columbia. That's when she discovered the Missouri Contemporary Ballet.
Auinbauh said she was attracted to a modern dance company because it requires less dancing en pointe and is easier on her feet. Although she was mostly trained as a ballet dancer, she said that hasn't been a hindrance to other types of performance.
"If you are a good ballet dancer, it translates to other kinds of dance," she said. Still, the Missouri Contemporary Ballet allows her to use her special training frequently. She particularly enjoyed "Falling Apart," an all-female dance from "Falling" that depicts the mental and physical deterioration of the dancers.
"It's fun to have that much energy on stage," she said.
Auinbauh's clean, graceful movements on stage are evidence of her classical ballet training. Lelakus, who has been a choreographer for Auinbauh, said she's easy to work with.
"Melanie is a very athletic dancer and very classically trained," Lelakus said. "She is a pleasure to choreograph."
Lelakus has danced with Auinbauh for two years at the Missouri Contemporary Ballet and is one of her closest friends. When they aren't dancing, they go out to eat, see movies and shop, "things normal early 20-somethings do," Lelakus said.
But dancing, school and a social life make time management tricky. During the regular dance season, the Missouri Contemporary Ballet rehearses from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Auinbauh usually is able to schedule classes during the early morning, late afternoon and at night, but she had a required class at noon during the fall semester.
Fortunately, she said, the dance company was willing to be flexible. Auinbauh hopes to continue dancing at least part time as college becomes more rigorous.
Because the Missouri Contemporary Ballet doesn't do a holiday program, its dancers get to work with other companies this time of year. Just last weekend, Auinbauh performed with Dancers' Alley as the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker." She'll rejoin the contemporary ballet after winter break.
With so many ambitions, Auinbauh is unsure what the future holds, but she hopes dance will always be part of her life.
"I'm going to try to keep dancing as long as I can," she said.