She sat perched in a padded chair in a central Omaha hotel ballroom.
It was 11 a.m. Saturday, and Chloe Christensen was in the first day of her first-ever pageant.
The 11-year-old joined 103 other girls in the preteen division of the two-day National American Miss Nebraska competition, a pageant for girls 4 through 18.
Chloe, a slender and long-legged fifth-grader, is a ballet dancer who plays clarinet in the band at Omaha's Willowdale Elementary. She earns A's and B's, loves sleepovers, pepperoni pizza and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream.
She was adopted in 2008 at age 7 by Dawne and Rich Christensen of Omaha, along with her two little brothers.
Her adoptive parents say Chloe faced some challenges — she was born to a single teen mom — that make the confidence-building aspect of the pageant more important than it may be for other girls.
"I want her to be proud of who she is,'' Dawne said.
In the low-lit ballroom, Chloe took the stage to dance a 90-second ballet routine, part of the pageant's optional talent competition.
She wore a black velvet tutu with delicate white lace trim. Small red roses were fastened in a circle on the top of her head. Long red ribbons cascaded from her light brown hair, down her back.
Her song, "Music of the Night" from "Phantom of the Opera," flowed from the speakers.
Chloe began to dance.
She gracefully crossed her feet and slowly turned, lifting her arms above her head in a ballet move called a soutenu. She leapt through the air with her legs split and toes pointed, her arms extended out from her willowy body. She looked athletic, but delicate.
She danced on the tips of her toes, looking nimble and controlled. She finished with an elegant curtsy, bowing and letting her arms slowly sweep in front of her.
The audience of parents clapped, and Chloe walked off the stage to her mother.
"So good,'' Mom told her. "You're beautiful."
The pageant is broken into five age divisions and Chloe participated in the group for ages 10 through 12.
Girls were scored on a personal introduction they gave on stage during the weekend; formal wear; and one-on-one interviews. The goal is to gauge girls on poise, personality, communication and public speaking skills. Community involvement also is part of the overall scoring, but talent and other optional categories are not.
The winner in each age division receives prizes that include a $1,000 cash award and airfare to a national competition this fall in California.
Some pageants for kids have drawn criticisms from those who believe the contests overemphasize appearance and reinforce a narrow definition of beauty that isn't natural for young girls. Critics point to pageants like those on the TLC show "Toddlers & Tiaras" featuring young girls in heavy makeup, false eyelashes, spray tans, fake hair and revealing costumes.
Breanne Maples, associate state director for National American Miss, said her pageant is not like the pageants on the TV show.
The rules say girls 12 and younger in the American Miss competition aren't allowed to wear makeup. If a girl does, the violation will be reflected in the scoring, Maples said.
There is no swimsuit competition for girls of any age and the formal wear must be age-appropriate, Maples said.
Dawne Christensen said that's why the pageant was a good fit for Chloe.
"I don't want her to be older than she is,'' she said.
American Miss is an example of so-called "natural" pageants.
Carl Dunn, CEO of Florida-based Pageant Magazine, said such pageants limit makeup and emphasize communication skills and age-appropriate clothing. Other natural pageants include the Iowa and Nebraska National Teenager Scholarship Program Pageant.
Natural pageants are considered the mainstream part of the pageant industry, Dunn said, and are more common than the styles of pageant featured on the TLC show, which tend to be more popular in the South and on the West Coast.
Chloe always loved watching the Miss America Pageant and knew she wanted to enter a pageant some day. Her parents realized a pageant would be a good fit for Chloe's outgoing personality.
She spent more than a dozen hours practicing her ballet routine for the talent show, which awards prizes separate from the overall competition.
Chloe also spent more than six hours practicing for the personal introduction and interview portions of the competition.
For both she worked with Stephanie Kidd, a family friend who has a background in theater.
Kidd coached Chloe on the best way to hold the microphone while introducing herself to the pageant audience and how it's best to keep her feet steady and not shift her weight back and forth as she speaks.
Chloe practiced answering sample questions such as why she wanted to enter the pageant and what qualities she looks for in a best friend.
Depending how many optional events a girl entered, the pageant schedule could be pretty packed, with rehearsals and competitions. Families get hotel rooms, so in between events, girls would head back to their rooms for a nap, grab some food or swim in the hotel pool. Some parents and girls hung out in the hotel lobby, surrounded by backpacks and hair styling tools.
But girls definitely had time to socialize. Girls who never knew each before the pageant exchanged cell phone numbers and promised to connect on Facebook.
At 6:15 p.m. Saturday, Chloe gathered with the other girls near the stage for the formal wear competition. Each girl had an escort, usually their dad.
Backstage, dads told their daughters how beautiful they looked. Girls whispered and laughed and exchanged stories on where their got their dresses.
Girls wore gowns in spring colors like white, light blue and green. The gowns were modest. Nothing low-cut or revealing.
When the emcee called her name, each girl walked onto the stage with their escort.
Chloe wore an off-the-rack, floor-length, red and white satin dress accented with glitter and a red bow in the back.
"Chloe Christensen," the emcee called out.
She walked arm and arm with her dad to the center of the stage. She then walked slowly by herself in a small circle while looking out at the judges and audience.
Chloe smiled brightly and kept her arms loosely by her side. She looked elegant under the stage lights.
Afterward, while resting a ballroom chair, she said participating in the pageant filled her up.
"I feel like I'm stronger,'' she said.
She said performing in front of a crowd helps her realize she can succeed in other parts of her life, like school.
On Sunday morning, Chloe and the girls returned to the ballroom for their personal introductions. Girls aren't required to write the introduction themselves, and the younger ones probably work on it with their parents, a pageant official said.
Each girl walked to the center of the stage and gave their name, age, hometown and goals for their future.
There were girls from Omaha, Lincoln and communities across the state such as Grand Island, Kearney and David City.
There were future pediatricians, a baker and a photographer. There were marine biologists, crime scene investigators and an orthodontist.
Chloe walked onto the stage and smiled as she spoke clearly and slowly:
"When I close my eyes, I think about a grown-up me. I am a professional ballerina on stage as Clara in 'The Nutcracker. ...'''
On Sunday evening, the fast beat of Selena Gomez's "Love You Like a Love Song" thumped out over the speakers as parents and relatives packed the ballroom for the pageant finale. Cameras flashed, giving the darkened room a rock-concert feel.
The girls, decked out in their formal wear, filled the stage as the emcee announced the 20 finalists in that age division.
One by one each finalist walked to the center of the stage as her name was called. After the 19th finalist was named, Chloe was still waiting.
The emcee, before naming the last finalist, praised all the girls for participating, then called out the last name.
Chloe didn't make the final group.
In the closing minutes of the finale, 10-year-old Savannah Soltero of Columbus was named the National American Miss Nebraska Pre-Teen.
But earlier in the evening, Chloe received special recognition. She won the "spirit award," for showing the most uplifting personality during the weekend.
When the pageant ended, and the lights in the ballroom were back on, Chloe walked up to her parents.
Her mom and dad told her how much they loved her, how proud they were of her, how beautiful she was.
Chloe, a girl who dreams of dancing on the ballet stages of New York City, looked tired but happy in her red satin dress.