Joel Dichter's mother knew he was destined to be a ballet dancer when she took the tot to see a touring production of "The Nutcracker."
"There was a scene where the Snow King lifts up the Snow Queen. He jumped out of my lap, split my lip open, and screamed like he was at a football game," Cathy Dichter recalled. "The woman in front of me turned around in the middle of the production and said, 'If you don't put him in ballet tomorrow, I'll be very upset.' "
At 17, the Eagan youth has racked up medals in national competitions and became the first Minnesotan to train at the elite Académie Princesse Grace in Monaco.
Most recently, Dichter was named a National YoungArts Foundation Finalist, joining the ranks of such luminaries as actress Viola Davis, jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard, choreographer Camille A. Brown and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, all of them YoungArts winners.
Finalists receive a range of awards up to $10,000, and are invited to participate in National YoungArts Week+, taking place virtually Jan. 3-9. Because of the time difference (he's training in Monaco), Dichter opted to postpone participation until next year.
"He's just really an exceptional young dancer," said Rebekah Lengel, senior director of artistic programs at YoungArts. "I think that we are going to be seeing him on many stages around the world."
His family was living in Indiana when they adopted Joel the day he was born. His birth mother chose them because of their interest in the arts. The elder two children were taking dance and playing instruments at the time.
"I always saw him as having that star quality," said his sister Wesleigh, whose own experience as a ballet dancer has proved helpful in Joel's career. "You can't stop watching him. He commands the stage. ... There's something about the way he dances that has so much joy, and it's so genuine that you love to watch him."
His mom moved to Phoenix for two years so Dichter could train at the Master Ballet Academy. In 2016, he won an award at the Youth American Grand Prix, where a woman told him: "You need to get European training, and you need to get it fast, because you're not going to be able to compete with the European boys."
He wound up landing a spot at Académie Princesse Grace after competing in New York and dancing on the Lincoln Center stage.
Reached in Monaco, Dichter said his biggest challenge has been attention deficit hyperactive disorder. "I have had to workday in and day out to focus on not only a task but also on personal goals." But looking back and seeing his accomplishments helps keep him on track.
"From my experience, not everything comes quick. You truly need to work for it. And that's what I love," he said.
Dichter said he enjoys meeting people from different cultures, something he's been able to do while training at the Académie.
"I love every single person here because they have a different perspective on life than I do," he said.