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'Nutcracker' An Opportunity to Shine

The Arlington Center for Dance allows ballet dancers to perform in professional plays.

A December tradition for many families, the "Nutcracker" provides the chance to watch young ballet dancers as well as professionals bring to life the characters of the Nutcracker, Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

For the Arlington Center for Dance, this is the second year that families can come watch their ballet dancers perform the entire ballet. When families watch this particular performance, they will notice subtle differences, such as the 1940s party scene and the costumes that the ballerinas wear in the snow scene.

"They are white unitards that are hand painted with snow wings," said Patti Marcoe, who handles public relations for the dance company. "They are really unique."

While everyone knows of the beauty of the "Nutcracker," not many people consider what many ballerinas and ballet dancers go through to make the performance special for those lucky to see it.

Auditions for the ballet are held in the first week of September, with rehearsals for over 100 dancers starting the third week of that month. The rehearsals are organized by group: the younger ballerinas and ballet dancers rehearse one hour a week while the older girls rehearse three to five hours per week. When rehearsals approach the performance dates, the older ballerinas rehearse six to seven hours per week.

In addition to all this rehearsing, dancers also have 20 hours per week of other classes, such as modern dance and pilates, and that does not include the hours they spend at school.

Most dancers start taking ballet lessons at the age of four. Those classes are introductory and at age 8 the dancers learn more complex routines. Once they get older, they have the opportunity to train at professional summer classes.

"The senior-most girls go out-of-state for the summer," said Marcoe. "Some have gone to Joffrey, California and Miami. The girls that are not able to go away for the summer are able to train at the 'intensive' that Arlington Center for Dance offers."

As a result, the Arlington Center for Dance sends at least one ballerina every year to a professional dance company somewhere in the nation.

"I want to join a professional dance company," said Rachel Frank, the ballerina portraying the Sugar Plum Fairy. "I am also looking at colleges that have a good dance program, such as Indiana."

While some of the dancers strive for professional success, the dancers all learn something important from dancing with this company.

"This is really fun. It is a good experience [dancing] on stage," said Zarina Stahnke, the young ballerina who plays Clara, the girl who receives the Nutcracker as a present from her uncle. "I look up to everyone. I see things that I can move up to."

"This [company] gives us a chance to perform in professional plays that most ballet dancers do not get to try until they go professional," said Frank. "The opportunities that are presented through this company are wonderful."

The Arlington Center for Dance opened in 1981 with Nanci Woods, the artistic director, and Caroline Frankil Warren. They both danced for the Delta Festival Ballet and decided to open up a dance company together. They decided on Arlington because there was family close by.

"I have family in Philadelphia and a brother here," said Caroline Warren. "I wanted to be closer to them."

Over the 24 years the Center has been open, ballerinas have left there to dance for professional companies such as the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Royal Ballet. Ballet dancers receive special instruction and guidance from the exceptional teaching staff.

Every year, the company has spring and fall shows, plus the "Nutcracker." During the year they also perform little shows around town. The ballet dancers have done performances at the Children's hospital and a multitude of other venues.

For information on the Arlington Center for Dance, visit www.arldance.com. The "Nutcracker" was performed Dec. 2-4 at the Thomas Jefferson Theater.