There is only a flash of discomfort on Peter Powlus' face as he stops, again, to explain one of the finer points of dance.
"In dance, everything is in eights," the Augusta Ballet's associate artistic director explains, clapping steadily. "Dancers can't count to 10. You should never be going to 10."
I wonder whether this is a good time to tell him that I haven't been counting at all.
Of all the possible creative endeavors, dance is the one with which I am least familiar and quite possibly, least suited. I've always felt awkward and self-conscious dancing, and, with the exception of the occasional beer-soaked tango at family weddings, it's an activity I have successfully avoided.
When the opportunity arose for me to experience The Nutcracker from the inside, though, it was an offer I found difficult to resist. Perhaps it's because I saw it as an opportunity to finally confront my fear of dance. Perhaps it's because it allowed me to step out of my accustomed role of observer and become a participant. Perhaps it's because of the tattoo across my forehead - the one that says "sucker."
Whatever the reason, come late October, I found myself in a crowded dance studio, a "family" assigned and expectant eyes waiting for me to dance.
You are the weakest link
The first rehearsal was an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps ordeal is a better word. It begins with the realization that I am the weak link here. Most of the first act consists of fathers, mothers and children at a Christmas gathering.
The children are students at the Augusta Ballet School and already have spent weeks immersing themselves in Nutcracker choreography. The mothers are professional dancers, women who make up the bulk of the Augusta Ballet's core company. The fathers are, if not trained dancers, eager amateurs who have performed The Nutcracker before.
Clearly, I have some catching up to do.
As a writer covering the arts, I've spent considerable time around The Nutcracker but never paid attention to what the fathers in the first act were asked to do. I remembered it as a lot of milling around, feigning interesting conversation and perhaps shooting a bemused glance at a mischievous child.
It seems there's some dancing involved. In terms of performance, the party scene is built around two short, straightforward and, from my perspective, evil dances.
The first is the Father's Dance, which entails two children literally, and in my case figuratively, dancing circles around a father. The second is the Grandfather's Dance, a little number that, after a month of rehearsals, I still won't be completely comfortable with.
Girls, girls, girls
Early on, I make a decision that might well have saved me. Knowing that my success or failure will rely on alliances, I immediately scan the room for the faces that I think might offer the most assistance. Some - directors, dancers and so on - are obvious. The most important relationships, however, were with the children - mostly girls - for whom performing in The Nutcracker is the fulfillment of every ballerina's dream.
Every time I dance with one of many little girls - and it happens a lot - I tell her that it's her job to make sure I don't look like an idiot. While having a 10-year-old whispering "Go, go, go" out of the corner of her mouth doesn't do much for my ego, it has helped me look a little less like a nitwit.
Sure, there are trained professionals hovering around the periphery, but it's those girls who are eager to help and concerned that I could bring The Nutcracker crashing around their ears, that keep me, mostly, in the right place at the right time.
... and lift
At one point, Mr. Powlus pulls me aside again, asking whether I have any trouble with my back. My immediate thought is that I seem so awkward that people are beginning to believe I'm suffering with some sort affliction. Sheepishly, I tell him no.
"Good," he replies. "We'd like you to pick up the dolls."
Needless to say, these are not actual dolls. No, they are dancers, adults, whom I am expected not just to lift, but lift onto my shoulder.
Granted, these women are ballerina thin and light, but I'm not really one for lifting anything heavier than a remote control and certainly would feel guilty were I to drop one on her nog.
There are dancers filling these roles, but I'm pretty sure that the threat of concussion isn't the reason why.
A month into the rehearsal process, Zanne Colton, the artistic director at the ballet, starts taking over the rehearsals for the party scene. Though much of her attention is ironing out flaws, making changes to the choreography and tightening the timing, she also is concerned about conveying a sense of mood. That, she says, is as important as being in the right place at the right time.
"This sets up the entire ballet," she explains. "This needs to be the most amazing Christmas party ever."
More encouraging is her advice on the odd misstep - own it. She explains that trying to correct a mistake often is more jarring to an audience than just accepting and moving on. I know that doesn't give me carte blanche to embrace my dance inadequacies, but it does go a long way toward calming my nervous disposition and ridding me of that deer/headlights stare that I feel sure I've flashed from time to time. It's given me a dose of confidence, confidence that I will be able to put the pieces that make up The Nutcracker together, that if I can't look smooth I, at very least, won't look stupid and, in the process, I might spread a little Christmas magic.
Look at that. I feel like a 10-year-old girl.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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