The dancers spin and leap, moving from the four corners of the floor, crisscrossing as the ethereal notes of Waltz of the Snowflakes soar through the studio.
Each ballerina’s delicate pink satin step and exquisite bend of the arm may appear effortless from the perspective of an audience. Up close, however, nuances of the movement are more evident, and the strength, stamina and precision required of each young performer make the dance even more impressive.
Each ballerina’s delicate pink satin step and exquisite bend of the arm may appear effortless from the perspective of an audience, but up close, their strength and the nuances of the movement are more evident — and impressive.
The scene is the North Central Ballet’s studio in Keller; the event, a typical Wednesday night rehearsal in the fall. Les Jordan, the company’s artistic and executive director, stops the routine to break down a section of the piece — correcting spacing between dancers, detailing the placement of a foot here, arm position there. He plays the section several times until the movements of the dancers match the choreography in his head.
“This is the process. This is the grunt work,” Jordan says. Addressing his dancers, he offers encouragement: “Breathe. It’s fun!”
A dancer draws a deep breath while she is poised en pointe, every leg muscle taut, and smiles.
Jordan praises the teen, “Now, that’s a snowflake smile.”
This weeknight rehearsal is one of three per week intended to prepare the dancers for North Central Ballet’s 21st annual performance of The Nutcracker, which takes the stage at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium the first weekend in December.
During this particular session, the production is still more than a month away, yet the dancers and director are clearly driven and focused.
“It takes technical ability and strength; then you develop artistry on top of that,” Jordan says. “Ballet class is where you learn the steps. Rehearsal is where you learn to dance.”
And rehearse they do. The top group of dancers — the company — spends several hours each weeknight and seven or eight hours Saturday getting ready for the performance. As the date draws near, practices grow longer, with dress rehearsals lasting late into the night.
Maddie Spencer, a 16-year-old from Keller who plays the lead role of Clara, says, “We work so hard. I don’t think people see how much work goes into it, but it’s totally worth it.”
This is her seventh year at North Central Ballet and The Nutcracker. Through the years, she has played a soldier, a mouse and an angel, then danced as a flower, a snow maiden and other characters.
The role of Clara represents a big step up: This year she’s dancing with a partner for the first time and is the center of attention. The whole ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky’s ballet is familiar to Maddie, so she says learning the choreography is easy. But, perfecting it? That’s another story.
During the North Central Ballet’s annual performances of The Nutcracker, six to eight moms work in “quick-change” stations behind the scene. Sometimes dancers must make complete wardrobe changes in 60 to 90 seconds.
More than 100 dancers will take part in the production, from early elementary-age children, playing mice and gingerbread cookies, to the dozen company dancers who hold the advanced roles like Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen. A guest artist will play the Nutcracker Prince and some party guests, and younger roles will be played by community members and dancers from other studios who answered an open audition call.
In addition to the public performances in Fort Worth, the cast will dance the complete show twice at Will Rogers for school children from Keller, Birdville, Grapevine-Colleyville, Weatherford and numerous home school groups.
“If there’s one kid in the audience who looks up and says, ‘You know, I could do that,’ I’ve planted a seed,” Jordan says, “even if they never become a dancer, they gain an appreciation for the art.”
The production has a full union stage crew and about as many parents and family volunteers as there are dancers. There’s the costuming crew, backstage helpers, ushers and box-office staff. There also are parents who provide security and volunteers for the boutique that sells Nutcracker-related gift items.
In the audience, there are families who attend every year.
“A lot of people tell me it doesn’t even feel like Christmas until they hear that music,” Jordan says.
For the audience, volunteers and dancers alike, he calls The Nutcracker a “kind of a magical land” where you can leave the real world behind for a while.
Behind the Curtain
Of course, it takes a lot of work to make the magic happen.
As costume mistress, Lori Lawthers manages about 240 outfits for The Nutcracker. Every year, she retires a handful of older costumes and makes new ones. With help from about 10 moms, she fits every dancer into one or more costumes, making alterations when necessary.
Her season starts in September when the younger dancers are assigned their roles. As soon as she completes those fittings, she progresses to the company dancers who usually have three costume changes each.
This year, she made a new costume for the Sugar Plum Fairy. The hardest pieces to sew are the tutus that stand straight out from the dancers bodies. Those consist of 10 layers of tulle, with each layer individually stitched together. Lawthers estimates each tutu takes more than 40 hours of work.
During performances, she directs a group of six to eight moms who work in the “quick-change” stations. Sometimes dancers must make a complete wardrobe change in 60 to 90 seconds. Before each show, the dancers and their helpers make sure the next costume (or two) and all its corresponding parts are laid out in the station.
This is Lawthers’ 11th year to volunteer, even though her daughter graduated high school last spring and moved to Colorado to continue studying dance.
“It just seems like it’s part of you,” Lawthers says. “The music never gets old and seeing new dancers move up every year makes it special.”
Michele Tidwell, another ballet mom, is also a longtime volunteer. She manages a group of parents who help dancers find the right place backstage and go out to perform on cue. Performance days have her spending 12 hours at Will Rogers Auditorium.
Her husband and son have volunteered at times, and their extended family all attend.
“It’s a big family tradition,” Tidwell says.
The Reward of Hard Work
Jordan’s dancers hold fast to the idea that they will only get out of it what they invest.
Victoria Allen, a 17-year-old from Keller and recent graduate of the program, came to North Central Ballet at age 11 after dancing at a larger studio where instructors seemed to focus on a few favorites.
“Mr. Jordan really took an interest in me,” Victoria says. “He completely changed my way of working. I’d never had a teacher so enthusiastic about making every person the best they can be.”
North Central Ballet has nine levels of proficiency, starting at age 6. A creative movement program for preschoolers focuses on fun and refining gross motor skills. Those in Level 9 are the company dancers, the most advanced, some of whom go on to professional ranks or earn college scholarships.
Victoria made the company at age 12, two or three years earlier than most dancers. The hard work that goes into The Nutcracker makes the company members very close. The hours are long and the expectations are high.
“It may look simple, but you have to control all the muscles in your body, and smile even though your muscles are hurting and you’re sweating and your makeup may be coming off,” Victoria says.
Ryan Tidwell, the 15-year-old daughter of Michele Tidwell, is one of about a dozen dancers at Level 8. Those are the trainees, each mentored by one of the company dancers. She looks forward to The Nutcracker every year. She loves the costumes and dancing under the lights for an audience. This year, she’s playing three parts.
“Every year, I get moved up and the level of chaos goes up, but it’s a happy chaos,” Ryan says.
Reagan Lawthers, Lori Lawthers’ daughter who, at 18, is in the pre-professional program at the Colorado Ballet Academy in Denver, treasured her annual Nutcracker roles, from a mouse at age 8 to the Sugar Plum Fairy last year. Reagan says she enjoyed the long days of rehearsal when dancers became “more like family.”
In addition to the annual holiday ballet, the studio typically performs a mixed bill show with two one-act ballets in March.
Jordan says there are reasons far beyond dance to cultivate discipline. Many of his teen students take advanced classes and end up on the honor roll. He has dancers now in their 30s who say the discipline they learned in ballet helped them succeed at work or in raising their children. But Jordan’s mission goes beyond instilling discipline.
“Ballet is a dying art form in this era,” he says. “It’s really my passion.”
The goal is to see it revive and thrive — and it does, in his corner of Keller.
Back at the midweek rehearsal in his studio tucked into one of a group of metal buildings off Katy Road, he walks between the twirling dancers, calling “port de bras” to remind them to mind their arms as he counts their steps.
Then they’re ready to go back to the beginning. This time, it will be better. Just before he restarts the music, he pauses and looks around at the dancers taking their places.
He grins like he’s sharing a secret. “This is my favorite spot in the whole entire world.”
Presented by North Central Ballet
7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 and 2 p.m. Dec. 6
Will Rogers Auditorium
Tickets are $30 plus service fee. Buy one, get one half off available at checkout with promo code BALLET. Purchase at www.nutcrackertickets.com