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Dancing Lessons

What I've learned from The Nutcracker


Published December 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

For the past four years, Tchaikovsky has provided the soundtrack to my holiday season. It's not enough that pieces from The Nutcracker are used incessantly in commercials at this time of year; as a participant in a production of the ballet, I'm hearing it all the rest of the time, too — even in my dreams.

Moving Light Dance Company, based in central Vermont, will bring The Nutcracker to life for the fifth year on December 17 and 18 at the Barre Opera House. I've been part of the cast since the beginning. I won't be performing in the show this year, but I'll be working backstage — directly below the stage, actually — coordinating the makeup room and helping the dancers get into character.

I got involved with Moving Light because my daughter started taking dance classes. I took tap and jazz when I was younger, but by eighth grade I'd moved on to team sports. I don't remember wishing I'd continued, but when my daughter, Emily, started taking dance classes at Moving Light, I remembered how much fun it was.

I volunteered as a backstage mom, then as the makeup lady for semiannual productions. I also took dance classes myself. When Moving Light's director asked me to join the first-act Christmas-party scene for the inaugural Green Mountain Nutcracker, I didn't hesitate to say yes. One year, I was a party guest; later one of the hosts.

Tryouts and rehearsals start for the dancers in mid-September. The oldest girls in the program take regular classes and typically spend up to seven hours on Sundays rehearsing for the show.

I loved seeing it come together each year, but also cursed myself for making the commitment, which forced me to scale back my own plans for the holiday and spend the days before Christmas in a mad scramble. I'll miss the adrenaline rush of the opening bars of the overture, but not the frenzy of production week: leaving the house at 8 a.m. for a regular workday and not returning home until 10:30 at night.

Some parents can roll with that kind of schedule disruption — easy going ones and the ones who are experts at planning ahead. I become preoccupied with feeding times and bedtimes and find myself starting countless sentences with, "If I were a better mom..." and ending them with "my kids would not be eating Cool Ranch Doritos for dinner."

My daughter began dancing with Moving Light when she was 5. She's 13 now and has switched her focus from ballet to modern. The leads in The Nutcracker are high school juniors and seniors, but they look much older, and more sophisticated, to me.

You can tell a lot about the expertise of the dancers by watching their faces during the show. The best ones betray no hint of effort or concentration despite the difficulty of the steps they are executing and the thousands of prescribed movements that go into each piece of choreography.

Proper form alone takes years to master. Dancers hold themselves with their torsos lifted, while energy is sent down through the feet. Many perfectly timed steps combine to form the fancy footwork. That precision extends to the fingers, to the tilt of the head and, of course, to the point of the toe.

As the dancers progress from the little Polichinelles, scooting loosely from under Mother Ginger's skirt in their colorful clown hats, to middle-school-age candymakers who open the second act, they begin to train their expressions. They may be smiling onstage, but you can tell from their faces that it's yet another stage direction. There's a lot to remember out there.

Then they take over as rats and soldiers and, in the Land of Sweets, as marzipan and flowers. The music carries them from step to step. Their faces are serene.

Offstage, though, it's a different story. Slick with sweat, they gasp for air as they race through a costume change for their next entrance. Sometimes they're pleased; other times they're critical, shaking their heads at a missed step or improper move. Then they step back onstage and their faces are serene again, radiating pure beauty.

The goal is to make extreme exertion look effortless.

I think about them a lot this time of year. Like the dancers, with their feet grounded and their limbs extending beyond where the body ends, I often feel like I'm working in opposition to myself. I make grand plans and end up frustrated when I can't pull them off to perfection, especially during the holidays.

Then I remember the darkened wings of the stage, the countless hours of preparation that turn persistence into magic and how grace comes from not worrying about the next step.

I reach for the peace in knowing that my imperfect presence is enough, and I set my face to joy. K

—Kristin Fletcher is a former sports editor for the St. Albans Messenger and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus who lives in Cabot. She has two children, 13 and 9, and works for Re-Bop Records.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.