The smell of gingerbread, a nip in the air… hot chocolate, candy canes, and that first snowflake to land on your tongue are but a few things that herald the coming of the holiday season. But for many, it just simply isn’t the holidays without a trip to The Nutcracker, one of Philadelphia’s most beloved traditions. It is a celebration of merriment and wonder, one that brings out the child in all of us. From the Land of the Sweets to the “Waltz of the Flowers” and that majestic 24-foot Christmas tree, The Nutcracker is a fairytale ballet that instantly conjures dreams of sugarplums dancing through our heads. But for so many dancers, it can be all of this… and so much more. Because, for them, The Nutcracker often represents their first introduction to ballet and the thrill of performing on stage. It’s a journey that can begin as early as age seven and remain for a lifetime. And, much like the story’s whimsical heroine, The Nutcracker can provide that magical first step along a path to a dream: that of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Two young dancers gracing the stage tonight are on such a path. One that might never have occurred had it not been for Dance Chance, Pennsylvania Ballet’s remarkable school-based program that brings dance to first-grade classrooms across Philadelphia. Pennsylvania Ballet is committed to serve Philadelphia’s diverse population, lowering barriers for access to dance. Dance Chance is unique in that it empowers children and helps them find new ways to grow physically, intellectually, and emotionally through creative movement. For many of these students, it serves as their first exposure to the ballet art form, providing new and exciting ways to express themselves. And for the company, it provides an important and meaningful way to cultivate the next generation of dancers. Students who show exceptional promise and dedication are invited to attend the School of Pennsylvania Ballet on full scholarship, and Pennsylvania Ballet, like many companies, uses students to augment their Nutcracker cast. Ella Broadhurst and Ahmir Williams are two such students. Broadhurst, 14, and Williams, 13, are both eighth-graders at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), which is located just blocks away from Pennsylvania Ballet’s studios. They are also two of Dance Chance’s most recent success stories.
Both students were in first grade when Dance Chance arrived on their doorsteps. At the time, neither had any interest in dance. They had never been to a performance or set foot on a stage. Ballet was not something even remotely on their radar screens. “If it wasn’t for Dance Chance, I would not be dancing at all,” said Broadhurst candidly. And now she’s dancing in front of thousands on the Academy stage and about to perform in the city’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, something she’s very excited about. As for Williams, “I thought ballet was just for girls,” he said. But the program helped him realize just how much athleticism dance requires. “I learned that even professional athletes, such as football players, took ballet.” He admitted ballet not only made him much stronger but also more confident and open to embracing new opportunities. “It also made him more disciplined in terms of academics… and his health,” said his mother.
Strength, discipline, athleticism, and self-expression are but a few of the personal gains to come out of Dance Chance for Broadhurst and Williams, but I think both would agree that an equally significant benefit was that of opportunity. Both students, just a few months after starting the Dance Chance program, were invited to join the School of Pennsylvania Ballet. “It was scary at first because I didn’t really know anyone and didn’t think I was any good,” said Broadhurst. But she, much like Williams, embraced the challenge and worked hard to get better, making lifelong friends along the way. They also improved at performing, something of which they are both quite proud. As students in the school, they are often afforded opportunities to dance alongside (and learn from) company members in some of Pennsylvania Ballet’s larger productions such as Swan Lake, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, and Don Quixote. But the first production either of them performed was The Nutcracker.
Williams has been performing in it for the last three years as one of the mice in Act I. Broadhurst has been taking the stage for the last seven (most dancers readily admit girls have it much harder during Nutcracker), rising through the ranks from angel to soldier, Party Scene to polichinelle. This year she will perform with the mice in Act I and as one of the hoops girls in Act II. When asked what they liked most about dancing in The Nutcracker, it was equal parts audience reaction, performing on stage with their friends, and pre-show hijinks in the dressing rooms (listening to music for Williams, and festively decorating the vanity mirrors for Broadhurst). Are they nervous to perform? “A little bit,” Broadhurst admits. Hoops is more technically challenging than some of her past Nutcracker roles, and the lighting in “Battle of Mice and Toy Soldiers” is darker than other scenes. “It’s hard to see through the masks, and you have to be careful not to step on anyone’s tail…!”
But pre-show jitters come with the territory, even for the most seasoned professional, and neither Broadhurst nor Williams would trade a second of it, not for all the candy in the Land of the Sweets. “Dancing in The Nutcracker is something I’m honored to be part of,” said Williams. And both he and Broadhurst recognize just how special it is every time they step onto the Academy stage and look out into that magnificent auditorium. And it’s all thanks to Dance Chance. Both Broadhurst and Williams hope to dance professionally one day, and both dream to do so with Pennsylvania Ballet. Nutcracker is the story of a magical dream that makes us believe anything is possible. How fitting then that Dance Chance did the same for two talented young dancers: it helped them to believe… in themselves, in the power of self-expression, and in the dream of a bright future. One where anything is possible.