For Miss Greater Sandhills Lisa Mace, this year's Miss North Carolina pageant has special meaning. At 24, Mace will not be eligible to compete next year.

"It's a last chance," she says.

This will be Mace's third appearance in the Miss N.C. competition, which is a part of the Miss America organization. She attended as Miss Moore County in 2005, and as Miss Goldsboro in 2008. Last year, she placed among the top 10 contestants. In 2000, she was crowned Young Miss N.C.

Mace says this familiarity with the state-level pageant gives her an edge.

"It's a totally different ball game," she says. "You can't really prepare fully without having been before, because you just don't know what to expect."

All the contestants stay in dormitories at Peace College in Raleigh. The girls move in on June 20, and the preliminaries start on June 23. Miss N.C. is crowned on the night of Saturday, June 27.

Strict rules prevent the contestants from bringing cell phones, laptops, or any electronic communication device. Friends and family can visit the girls only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, during an hour-long period. The contestants can send mail out or receive mail and packages, but that's the limit to their connection to the outside world during the pageant.

During the competition, the contestants perform in a talent section, model swim wear in a lifestyle and fitness section, and answer an on-stage question in the evening gown portion.

Each girl also undergoes a 10-minute private interview with the judges.

Mace, a lifelong resident of Seven Lakes, has been involved in pageants ever since she participated in the Little Miss Noel in Aberdeen at the age of eight. Her love of performing began even earlier, with her first dance classes at the age of three. She first signed up for a pageant for the chance to get more time on stage to perform her dances, but found she enjoyed the whole experience.

"I loved it so much, I begged my mom to sign me up again," Mace says. " I actually won the Junior Miss Noel the second year."

When Dancer's Workshop, the studio she attended, moved to Sanford, she continued to take classes there, even though that meant making the drive from Seven Lakes to Sanford twice a week.

In high school, Mace was on the cheerleading squad, which kept her busy almost year-round. After graduating from Pinecrest in 2003, she attended East Carolina University and majored in dance performance.

After being crowned Miss Moore County in 2005, she had her first experience at the Miss North Carolina event.

"I took a break after that," Mace says. "It was very exhausting, especially since I was in college at the time. Being a dance major meant doing so many rehearsals and shows; it just consumes a lot of time."

When she graduated from ECU in 2007, she began working as a dance teacher at a studio in Goldsboro. She made a triumphant return to pageant competition, winning the Miss Goldsboro title in 2008.

As Miss Goldsboro, Mace made her second appearance at the Miss N.C. competition and placed in the top 10.

This year, she feels she's got the expertise to take the top spot.

"I'm more prepared than ever," she says.

In the weeks before the event, Mace will be rehearsing for the talent portion, preparing for the onstage question and the interview, searching for the perfect wardrobe, and sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen. It's a busy schedule, especially since she's still teaching some in Goldsboro, working

part-time at her mother's office and giving private dance lessons across the state.

"Pretty much everything I'm doing has something to do with dance," she says. "It's what I love to do. My dad always told me if you love what you do you'll never have to work a day in your life, and that's how I feel about my life."

She'll also be traveling to schools in the Sandhills area to promote her platform of dance education. Mace named the program "Take the Lead: Partnering Dance with Education" in reference to the movie of the same name, starring Antonio Banderas as a teacher who gives ballroom dancing lessons to high-schoolers to teach them discipline and respect.

"I go to schools and give the kids a talk about the importance of nutrition and exercise, and then I'll teach them a dance, usually a hip-hop type dance, because boys and girls of all ages usually enjoy that," she says.

As Miss Goldsboro, Mace worked closely with schools in that county, going three times a week or more.

"I've seen some really great things come out of the program," she says. "I just hope I get the chance to take it to a state level."

It's Mace's hope that winning the Miss N.C. title would give her the chance to lobby the North Carolina state legislature to promote dance education in schools.

"I want to be an advocate for dance education," she says. "With budgets being cut right now because of the state our economy is in, usually the first thing to go is the arts. Being Miss N.C. would give me a voice to promote dance education."

Reflecting back on her participation in pageants, Mace says it gave her valuable experience.

"It builds poise, grace and confidence," she says.

"It really prepares you to speak in front of a group of people, or to do a job interview, for all these things you'll see later in life. I would encourage any girl to participate, just to try out a local level competition."

Laura Eddy was recently an intern at The Pilot.

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