Mary Jean Stack was just 3 when she first started dance lessons at the Margaret Haddad School of Classical Ballet in Great Falls. Today, Stack is a student at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C., but the 17-year-old has not forgotten the school where she got her start.
"It was great," said Stack. "I could never have gotten to where I am now without it."
Stack is so fond of her former ballet school, that she still comes back to visit — and there is one particular annual tradition that she has yet to give up.
"I love coming back," said Stack. "I come back for 'The Nutcracker' every year — and I've been doing the show every year since I was 6."
Stack still remembers the year when instructor Margaret Haddad allowed her to appear in the annual "Nutcracker" performance with a fairly significant handicap.
"She even let me be in it when I broke my leg," said Stack. "I was up on stage in a big, blue cast."
So, just as she has done for the last 15 years, Stack will once again be in Margaret Haddad's annual production of "The Nutcracker," and this year will play the role of the Snow Queen and the Arabian dancer.
Margaret Haddad has 44 years of teaching experience in 4 different countries. This year marks her 20th anniversary of teaching in Great Falls, and the 15th time that Haddad will put on the popular "Nutcracker" show for the Great Falls community. Approximately 85 people will perform in the show, which features more than 700 pieces of costume that are upgraded every year by volunteer Hope Reynolds. "The Nutcracker" cast includes Haddad's students — who range in age from 5-17 — five professional performers, several student fathers and Haddad's grandchildren. According to Haddad, her school is the only one in the area that gives young children the opportunity to perform on stage with professional dancers.
"What that does for my children is that, once they get on stage with these professional performers, they just sit there with their mouths open, and it inspires them to work harder which is a big advantage," said Haddad. "And from the audience point of view, they get to see all levels of dancing."
HADDAD STRIVES to run a school that teaches students to develop good character traits, as well as strong ballet skills. For example, Haddad demands that each of her older dancers be responsible for the younger dancers — keeping an eye on them and looking out for their general well being at the school. Several of Haddad's older dancers also come in to her studio on Saturdays to help out.
"They spend at least eight hours every Saturday helping the little ones learn their steps," said Haddad.
Four of those older students are in Haddad's three-year Teacher Training program, which requires them to come in for various weekly classes and act as assistant instructors.
"It's very good training for them because they get the chance to be in charge, and to be responsible," said Haddad.
Haddad also encourages her youngest students to buddy up with each other and help one another with costume changes backstage.
"Not only are they learning to be responsible, but they are learning to care for other people, and in today's society, I think that's very important," said Haddad.
Haddad's emphasis on teamwork and cooperation pays off at each annual "Nutcracker" performance.
"Every year the show just runs," said Haddad. "Everybody knows where they're supposed to be and where they're supposed to go, which I think is pretty commendable for such young children."
ALTHOUGH THIS will be the 15th year that the school presents "The Nutcracker," Haddad said that it had probably been the toughest rehearsal season in terms of logistics.
"This year has been the hardest," said Haddad. "We've had lots of problems, and I think it's just because so many of our young children are committed to so many different activities."
Since there are only nine Saturday rehearsals for the show, Haddad said it can be frustrating when numerous dancers cannot make the practice sessions. However, the show must go on, and Haddad does the best that she can with the time she is given.
"The overall willingness is there, and when they're here, they work hard," she said.
Haddad said she is constantly impressed with the maturity level and sense of responsibility displayed by her young students.
"I have one 6-year-old who, in addition to learning all of her own parts, is also an understudy for three other parts," said Haddad. "For a 6-year-old, that is quite impressive."
Hard work and responsibility aside, in the end Haddad is proud of the tight-knit dance community that has evolved in her school.
"I hear from so many people and students all the time, that we are like a big, happy family," said Haddad.