As the curtain fell Tuesday on her first-ever performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Augusta Ballet's Nutcracker, Julie Sierra received many congratulatory hugs and words of praise.
"I had Melissa with me," she told fellow dancer Bon Ellis after a school matinee at the Imperial Theatre. "I couldn't have done it without Melissa and God."
Melissa, Ms. Sierra's sister, was 11 when she died in November, 1995 of a brain tumor. Melissa's death came only weeks before she was to take the Imperial stage in the role of Clara. She was buried in her Clara costume.
In honor of her sister, Ms. Sierra wears an angel pin each time she dances. On Tuesday, a gold pin was tucked beneath her Sugar Plum sequined costume. She has an array of pins in gold and silver; some have Melissa's October birthstone.
Tuesday marked the first time she'd ever danced the role of the Sugar Plum, and it was the day she completed dancing all the roles her sister wouldn't have the chance to dance.
Ms. Sierra, 19, already has an impressive dance resume. She attended the Joffrey Ballet School in New York on a full scholarship, something available to few female dancers. While in New York, she danced for the Albany Berkshire Ballet. This is her first year back with the Augusta Ballet.
She started dancing at the age of 4 with the Aiken County Recreation and Parks Department, but spent most of her time in Augusta with the Augusta Ballet. There was even a time when her mother couldn't afford to send her two daughters to take lessons, but ballet officials told the Sierras to take dance lessons anyway and begin paying when finances improved.
While she plans to dance with the Augusta Ballet for a year, Ms. Sierra feels she is truly home for the holidays this Christmas.
"I'm happy to be here with my family," she said. The dancers of the Augusta Ballet are her extended family. "I feel like they all know me. It's wonderful I get to be the Sugar Plum, and my family is all behind me.
"I think any other Nutcracker will be nothing compared to this."
Ms. Sierra will play the Sugar Plum at 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday. She alternates that role and the roles of Dew Drop and Arabian.
Reach Charmain Brackett at (803) 441-6927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.