Moments after her parents drove away, homesickness hijacked Emma Hawes' emotions, leaving the 13-year-old sobbing on a small hotel bed in another country, doubting whether she was strong enough to chase her dancing dreams.

The tears did not stop for two weeks -- until the small-town girl from Delaware proved to herself that she belonged in Toronto at one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world.

"I was struggling to find a way to exist at that age," Hawes said 13 years later, recalling those early days.

"It was so awkward, and I felt out of place. I think I probably did want to go home, and it was hard on all of us. But dancing brought me out of the dark times. It's what I loved to do."

The decision to leave home transformed the little girl who once played the young heroine Clara in the 2005 production of BalletMet's "The Nutcracker" into a world-class ballet dancer.

Since graduating from Canada's National Ballet School in 2011, Hawes, 26, has become a noteworthy professional dancer.

She performs as a first soloist in both the National Ballet of Canada and English National Ballet companies, splitting her glamorous but grueling life between Toronto and London.

She has starred in roles as Princess Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty" -- most recently last month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. -- and as the white and black swans in "Swan Lake," among other characters.

Not many ballet dancers are simultaneously part of two elite companies. But thanks to the experience, exposure and constant performing, Hawes is on track to become a principal dancer -- the highest rank within a ballet company.

The rise, of course, comes with a price. On stage, the 5-foot-7-inch dancer with light red hair and freckles resembles the exuberant characters she portrays.

Off stage, there often is lower back pain, exhaustion, muscle soreness and varying degrees of achy feet, depending on if she turns an ankle that day.

A typical performance day includes rising at 9:30 a.m. and eating yogurt and granola or a bagel with salmon and cream cheese on the go. Then she heads straight to ballet class or rehearsal.

An afternoon performance or more training might follow, then dinner at a restaurant -- sometimes without taking off her stage makeup.

Her evenings can consist of another performance from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. before arriving back home around 11:30 p.m. to cook and consume as much pasta as possible with her boyfriend, an Italian dancer who performs in the same two ballet companies.

She then falls asleep between 1 and 2 a.m. before starting all over the next day.

"There are times when you can't feel your arms or feet," Hawes said. "You have to push on when your body is screaming to stop.

"But all the dancers feel this way at times, and I love the support and friendship we have with each other to get through it."

It wasn't love at first step when Hawes started taking toddler ballet classes at the Arts Castle in Delaware. She remembers "not totally loving" the regimented classes, and she even stayed away from a studio for a couple of years when a Halloween-themed performance scared her.

Her favorite dances, for a time, were those improvised to the music of Queen, which she listened to on her Walkman in her bedroom.

Eventually, the ballet performances connected with Hawes' spirit and became a language all their own. She liked the ability to create with movement, but welcomed the regimented discipline needed in the dance world.

Her biggest dilemma, though, was choosing between passions: dancing and swimming.

By age 10, under the coaching of her dad, Dick Hawes, who has been the swim coach at Ohio Wesleyan University for 29 years, Emma Hawes already was a prodigy in the pool. Her times were among the best in the country for girls her age.

But Hawes chose the stage over the pool, a decision that didn't break her dad's heart. What was tough, Dick Hawes said, was watching his daughter go off to boarding school, despite having an aunt and uncle in Toronto to lean on.

"I wanted her to do what she loved to do," he said. "When you stop loving something, it's time to move on to what you do love. It's been amazing to watch her mature as a dancer and gain confidence."

That confidence was on full display early on when 12-year-old Hawes was chosen by BalletMet instructors to play Clara in "The Nutcracker." She later was featured on a giant billboard as part of the show's marketing campaign and it was the first time she performed with professional dancers.

Susan Dromisky, one of Hawes' coaches at BalletMet, said her natural talent and charisma were obvious from the beginning.

"The moment I started working with Hawes, there was no question this was an amazing artist," said Dromisky, now the rehearsal director for BalletMet.

"It was evident from an early age that not only was she physically gifted, but she was very intelligent, so joyful and was a tenacious worker.

"And even though she is an upper-echelon dancer, she is just beginning to tap into her ability. It's limitless what she can achieve," said Dromisky, who at different points in her career was a first soloist for national ballet companies in Canada and England.

But not every coach along the way made it easy for Hawes to keep climbing the ranks. After one rehearsal at school at age 15, when she was dancing the part of the white swan in "Swan Lake," a coach told her she looked more like a pigeon than a swan.

The comment, which caused more tears at the time, stuck with the young dancer.

About eight years later, Hawes received rave reviews for performances in Swan Lake in Toronto for Canada's national ballet company, while her proud parents, Dick and Jane Hawes, were among those giving her a standing ovation.

It was that night her parents both realized their excruciating decision to let Hawes go to boarding school was the right one for all.

"It was the first time, in that performance, that she made me forget she was my daughter," Jane Hawes said. "She had matured as a performer and was making it her own.

"She had matured and discovered who she wanted to be as a performer and a person. You kind of hope for that as a parent. It was a big moment for all of us."

The big moments have continued for Hawes for the past several years. But moments of self-doubt remain: Am I good enough? Do I really belong here?

Those are the questions produced by what she calls "impostor syndrome."

But it is what drives her when her body is hurting and she wants only to lie on the ground. It is what makes her believe she can do this for another 10 or 15 years if she wants to. It is what propels her to work harder so that no one would dare call her a pigeon ever again.

"Leaving home at that age was the hardest thing, but it's been more than worth it," Hawes said. "I love dancing and performing.

"But it's been more than that for me. It's given me a chance to discover who I really am."

mwagner@dispatch.com

@MikeWagner48