It started out as a benefit to help two young boys stricken with cancer. That was 11 years ago, and now Mia Saunders — who annually teaches more than 100 girls the art of holding their heads high and keeping their toes pointed — is once again presenting the annual holiday ballet at Centreville High School on Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 3 p.m.
"I'M PLEASED to say our Nutcracker is a performance everyone in the community looks forward to," says Saunders, a professional ballerina turned full-time mom who in 1986 moved to Little Rocky Run. She started a ballet school so her then 4-year-old daughter, Cara, would have a place to dance near home.
Nearly two decades later, Saunders has attained the reputation of being a top-notch ballet teacher with a unique approach.
"I don't have rules about only teaching girls with 23-inch waists who are 6 feet tall," Mia explains. "I believe every girl, no matter her shape or size, should have the opportunity to learn to dance, and dance well. All I expect is that my students do their best. After all, these are children we're talking about. Learning to dance is a gift — one that teaches them to have grace, poise and confidence. That is something they will carry through their lives no matter what career they pursue."
"The Nutcracker," she says, holds a special place in her heart.
"I started out having my students perform this ballet because we wanted to help two boys who were gravely ill," she says. "They were the same age as my daughter, and I felt so much empathy for them and their families. In the process of doing the ballet in 1994, I realized this was also a great way for my students to experience what it is like to put on a big production. So we kept it going."
Plus, she says, the beauty of dancing "The Nutcracker" is that it offers opportunities for all of her students to shine: "The kindergarten and first-graders start out as angels and dance a few simple steps; as they grow they progress to tougher roles such as cooks and soldiers. Our middle- and high school girls get the parts of Clara or the Sugarplum Fairy, and those 'big girl' roles become something many of the littler ones dream of doing."
Indeed, many students sign up for Saunders' class when they are 5, and continue to study with her until they graduate from high school. This year, the role of Clara will be performed by long-time students Sarah Seale (on Saturday, Dec. 10) and Katherine Hussey (on Sunday, Dec. 11). Both girls attend Liberty Middle School and started dancing with Saunders when they were in first grade.
The role of the Sugar Plum Fairy will be danced by Keana Cummings, a graduate of Centreville High who recently finished her degree in chemistry at Virginia Tech. She studied with Saunders for more than a decade.
SAUNDERS ADDS another hometown touch to the event by regularly inviting prominent adults from the community to dance the roles of Clara's grandparents and friends in the show's opening ballroom number. In years past, Realtor Russ Day and his wife showcased their dancing skills. This year, that honor goes to Cindy and Lee Wilbur, Dagmar and Harvey Johnson, and Susan and Bob Woodruff.
Saunders' tradition of donating the proceeds from The Nutcracker to charity also continues this year. Habitat for Humanity and the Centreville High School Drama Boosters Club are the beneficiaries, and if past earnings are an indication, the organizations should receive about $3,000 each.
"I believe that donating the money we raise teaches the girls the importance of giving, especially at holiday time," Saunders concludes. "I want them to learn that the point of performing The Nutcracker is not to see who gets the lead, but to realize they are using their talent as dancers to help those less fortunate, or who simply need assistance. My goal is to send my dancers off into the world knowing what is really important in life."