At a very young age, my mother took me to see New York City Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. Enamored by the beautiful ballerinas, lavish costumes, and grand music, I declared the same goal as so many little girls before me had: One day I would be the Sugar Plum Fairy. For many of those girls, the dream of dancing professionally on the stage is one that is only a passing fancy, deemed too much work when the battle had only just begun, or is out of reach due to poor training, a lack of commitment, injury, or a body not made for ballet. For me, it became a reality.
After my mother, a dancer herself who had put herself through college by teaching ballet classes, thoroughly looked through dance schools in my local area, I began taking lessons at the age of three at Center Stage Dance and Theatre School. My training progressed as I started competing at the regional level, studying all forms of dance and theatre with a special focus in ballet. By the time I was fourteen years old, I had won the Triple Threat scholarship from the New York City Dance Alliance, taken first place as a soloist at the national level with special recognition from the judges for my technical capabilities, and was leaving home for the third summer to attend what my family calls “ballet boot camp,” a five-week summer program at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet that pushes young dancers with a professional interest to perfection. After great success at Center Stage, and several summers of ballet summer programs, I knew that my true passion and professional intent was ballet, both contemporary and classical. I was offered a position at the Princeton Ballet School’s Professional Training Program just after I turned seventeen and spent the final year and a half of high school dancing with trainees for the American Repertory Ballet, a professional company. After being asked to join all but one of the college ballet programs I auditioned for, I happily accepted a place here at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
While at Center Stage, I performed in The Nutcracker every other year. I began as a Polichinelle (a small clown who runs out from underneath Mother Ginger’s massive hoop skirt on stilts), moved up to a Soldier and Snowflake, and was fortunate enough to spend my last three alternating holiday seasons as Clara, Snow Queen, and, finally, the Sugar Plum Fairy. During my senior year of high school, I travelled with the American Repertory Ballet company as a Snowflake, Flower, and Spanish Chocolate for eleven performances all across New Jersey. While companies may put together a specific ballet as often as every four years at the most, The Nutcracker is the one exception. Most companies, in order to keep ticket sales alive, respond to the public’s demand for the show by doing it every holiday season! The Nutcracker has become and large part of my life and will continue to be for many years to come.
Ballet Theatre Midwest is a local children’s school that puts on an annual performance of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a slightly altered and differently titled version of The Nutcracker due to Cincinnati Ballet’s right to be the sole performers of The Nutcracker in the area. Daniel Simmons, the director of Ballet Theatre Midwest, casts the children of the school in ensemble roles and hires dancers, often from CCM, to dance as the lead roles. Mr. Simmons held his annual audition at CCM in late September and I was selected as one of eight girls for the production. Eleven hours of rehearsals per week spread out onto Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday began on October 18th and on that day, I signed my first paid dance contract!
My first three rehearsals went extremely well. Though the choreography was extremely detailed and taught very quickly, I managed to learn it all without ever falling behind. Mr. Simmons was very pleased with my work and had already asked me to begin learning the soloist role in the Spanish Chocolate number in addition to learning the roles of Party Parent, Doll, Snowflake, Flower, Chinese Tea, and Merleton. After what seemed like one of my most successful starts to The Nutcracker season, the unthinkable happened. While playing a friendly game of Quidditch to help build up my stamina by running and have some fun with friends, we played against a new team with a brand new player who had just signed up. Only minutes into the very low-contact, no collision sport, the new player, a man over six feet tall and easily 200 pounds, tackled me at a full sprint from behind, landing on top of me. The pain was immediate and more intense than anything I had ever felt in my life. Leaving out the gory details of what followed, the result was that the offending player was expelled from the group for assaulting me and I was carried into the nearest car and rushed to the hospital by my team captain and roommate. After several X-rays, CAT scans, and MRI’s of my right knee and hip, an injection for pain relief so that more examinations could continue, and a check for a concussion, I left the hospital on crutches with a brace from my hip to my ankle that immobilized my knee. The orthopedic surgeon informed me that I was one of the luckiest cases he had ever seen; due to my hyper flexion (extreme mobility in my joints), the strength and flexibility of my tendons from my dance training, and the angle of impact (straight down), I didn’t tear or break anything. Had I twisted even the slightest bit to either direction upon getting hit, I could have completely blown out my knee (torn the ACL, MCL, and meniscus) and/or broken my leg. My knee was bruised down to the bone and all of the ligaments were extremely damaged, additionally exposing underlying wear-and-tear already in my knee from years of intense dance training. I wouldn’t be able to walk for six weeks, let alone begin to dance, by normal healing rates.
All of the previous information sets the stage for the most difficult phone call I’ve ever had to make and one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever taken on as a dancer. I informed Mr. Simmons of what had happened and he asked that I come in early to the next rehearsal so that we could discuss my situation. I wouldn’t be able to dance fully approximately two weeks before the show so if I were to fulfill my contract, I would have to learn all of the choreography while sitting and watching and be 100% ready to perform it the day that I was able to dance again. Dancers don’t learn that way; they learn by actually doing it, by their muscles practicing the patterns until they become as familiar as walking. By taking on this herculean challenge, I would have to memorize it all visually without ever practicing the foreign movements. One of the most physical tasks in the world would have to become completely cerebral. Additionally, I would have to prove to Mr. Simmons that I was successfully learning it all as rehearsals progressed in order to keep my contract.
I have never known another dancer to attempt learning choreography without actually moving and so I had to start my methods at square one. I began to observe every rehearsal from the corner of the room, wielding a notebook and pen. I wrote down everything: spatial patterns, who I danced behind or next to, the series of steps, which arm to use when, and anything else I could possibly think of. After rehearsal, as my own self-assigned homework, I would listen to the music and envision myself performing the choreography, both doing the actual steps and where I would be on stage in relationship to all of the other dancers. Mr. Simmons suggested that once my leg was able to bend enough to sit properly in a chair instead of being completely straight in the brace and propped up on another chair, that I begin to do the arm and head motions along with the dancers so that at least the top half of my body would be familiar with the movements. Whenever he was reviewing choreography, I was asked to explain patterns and recited the steps in order to demonstrate that I was retaining the vast amounts of choreography being taught. Once I was able to walk again after weeks of grueling, painful rehabilitation for my knee, I stood in line with the dancers and would walk through the patterns with them without actually dancing. This was a great help to me; I was able to finally put all that I had learned into a physical context. The dancers around me were quite surprised that I always moved in the correct direction, using the proper arms and head movements after only visually observing for over a month. I even surprised myself! The one person who was not surprised was Mr. Simmons, who later explained to me that he would have never risked keeping my contract if he didn’t have full confidence that I would be able to figure out a way to learn everything. At the end of one of the rehearsals, he even asked me to explain my learning methods to his students as a teaching example for creative ways to deal with injuries!
The performances themselves held their own set of challenges. I would be dancing in all of my originally assigned roles with the exception of Flowers, which had been recast after another dancer was injured. (In ballet, ensembles need to have an even number of dancers. It was easier to take myself and the other injured dancer out than to try to re-choreograph it to fit an odd number.) The amount of pressure placed on my still-healing knee was tremendous and I had to have ice placed on it immediately after each show’s completion. Additionally, I had lost all of my stamina after weeks upon weeks of inactivity; a flight of stairs was enough to put me out of breath, let alone the seven minutes of running and jumping required to dance the Waltz of the Snowflakes. By focusing on keeping my breathing steady and even, I was able to combat my weak stamina without extra physical activity. One of the most difficult challenges, however, wasn’t physical at all; it was a curveball thrown in by the wardrobe department. Due to my roles as both a Party Parent and a Doll, I had only two minutes to change from one costume into another and then only ninety seconds to change back! In order to meet the tight deadline, I met with a member of the wardrobe department before each show and set my unbuttoned costume, readied pointe shoes, and hair accessories with the pins already attached in the wings of the stage. Right on cue, I would exit and change as quickly as possible with her help. While I put on my pointe shoes, she would be pinning a flower into my hair. While I was putting on the bodice of the costume, she would be closing the hooks on the tutu. Multi-tasking, cooperation, and advanced planning were crucial when the margin of error beyond the fastest-possible time was only ten seconds.
During my final performance, fellow dancers from CCM came to support their friends in the cast. When I took my bow, the audience, filled both with friends who had seen first-hand my long journey of knee rehabilitation and inventive methods of learning the choreography and people who I had never met before, went wild! I received my first “dancer” paycheck backstage after the final curtain closed and a congratulatory hug and thank you from Mr. Simmons for the work that I put into the production while seated in the wardrobe department with a bag of ice on my knee to keep the swelling down. Funnily enough, my greatest relief was the same that I have experienced after the completion of each holiday season’s dancing: NO MORE NUTCRACKER MUSIC! That is, until next year, of course.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier’s performances were completed one and a half weeks after the semester was over. After sleeping on an upperclassman dancer’s couch for that period due to the dorms closing, I was quite excited to fly home as soon as possible (the first flight out on Christmas Eve) to make it home in time for the holidays and start the new year.
Spring semester handed me many surprises, both positive and negative, as a result of my time spent with Ballet Theatre Midwest. My winter break had been cut down to almost nothing due to the additional time spent performing and I slammed into the new semester dancing fully in every class and rehearsal. My knee became extremely aggravated and after the pain increasing to the degree of being unable to walk up a flight of stairs, I returned to the orthopedic surgeon who informed me that I had a lot of fluid that needed to be drained out of my knee, tendinitis and bursitis above and underneath my kneecap, and that it would be necessary for my full healing from my knee injury to take the summer off from dance. However, part of the reason that I was able to complete the semester was the skills set that I was able to develop during my time at Ballet Theatre Midwest. By not over-exerting myself in rehearsals, I was able to further how long my knee would hold out. This was accomplished through learning choreography by leading with my brain instead of my body. I relied more on my cerebral memory than my muscle memory and was able to successfully complete the semester. Funnily enough, I even noticed that when dancing fully to learn choreography, I’ve become much quicker at it after all of the practice that I had over the holiday season!
Performing with Ballet Theatre Midwest gave me my first paid dance experience, an extremely important foot in the door of the professional ballet world. By building my resume, I increase my chances of successfully getting a job at an audition for a company. In addition to this professional exposure, I was able to explore alternative learning methods for picking up choreography due to a serious injury that would have normally ended a dancer’s season prematurely. I overcame many challenges through this experience and the lessons learned will assist me as I continue working towards my dream of becoming a professional dancer. Who knows what next Nutcracker season will bring!