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The Last Nutcracker

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Photo Credit Hisae Aihara

For a decade, our family’s holiday season has been measured by my daughter’s participation in The Nutcracker–Baby Mouse, Big Mouse, Reindeer, Snow, Arabian Dancer and Columbine doll–she danced them all.

By the time the curtain closed on her final performance last December, at age 15, an entire magical childhood had flown by, only we didn’t know it at the time.

When she was three, a neighborhood mom, who was a ballet dancer and director, opened a studio in the basement of a nearby building. The prospect of an hour to myself while my child was not parked in front of a TV seemed too good to be true; so she was one of the first enrolled.

I didn’t know if my daughter, who had frequent, explosive tantrums at home, but was painfully shy in public, was really learning to dance at the studio, and I didn’t care.

I don’t remember how much I paid for those first lessons, but whatever it was couldn’t have been nearly enough for the time I spent in the waiting room, talking and laughing with the other moms.

That spring parents were invited to a recital in a local church, and I was amazed to see the children knew the basic positions and could saute and relevé in time. Even though the space was uncomfortably small and there were occasional tears and arguing on stage about which way to turn, the audience was mesmerized.

The costumes were stunning, the applause thundering, and when my daughter stepped off stage, something about her had changed.

[My own mother, whose dance training was interrupted by World War 2, wanted nothing more than for me to study ballet, but I never did. I guess her mistake was to ask if I wanted to learn.]

Just two years later the dancers were expected to attend rehearsals several times a week throughout the year, but especially in the months leading up to Sunnyside Ballet Studio’s first production of The Nutcracker in our local community center.

At the performance the sound system stopped working, but the children were so well-trained they continued as if nothing was wrong. Members of the audience hummed the notes of Tchaikovsky’s “March” during the opening party scene to fill in the silence. My mother-in-law, who passed away five years ago, and loved the holidays and her granddaughter more than anything, sang loudest of all.

As my daughter grew, she spent several days a week going from school to ballet, and several summer weeks at dance camp. Tantrums subsided, she came out of her shell and the other children became her closest friends.

And as the years went by The Nutcracker grew as well.

By the time she was seven the show was performed at the Queens Theatre, a building in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, constructed for the World’s Fair.

During the first show I sat in awe with the other parents as the children performed in front of an audience of nearly 500 family members and friends.

The school’s director, arguably one of the most organized and talented people on the planet, ensured sets and props looked professional, each costume and headpiece was in place and the dancing was flawless.

It was magic.

Backstage there were real dressing rooms with backlit vanity mirrors and the atmosphere as I helped the girls’ with hair and make-up was more festive than any holiday party I could remember.

Just a few years after that, my daughter started middle school. That December she performed on pointe for the first time and was old enough to no longer want my help off stage.

When the girls became teenagers, they began walking to and from the studio together to rehearse for several hours, four days a week. They didn’t need parents for pick-ups or drop-offs; and my time spent hanging around the studio was suddenly gone.

What had started out as an hour for myself once a week, became my child’s separate world.

The studio director and dance teachers were raising her, along with more than one hundred other girls.

And The Nutcracker continued, through the beginning of high school and the pandemic, outdoors, then indoors again, but masked. And finally, after nine seasons in the ensemble, my daughter had her first solo at age 15.

By then her grandmother, who asked to be called Nana and always sat as close to the front row as possible, had passed away. She never had the chance to see her granddaughter as the Columbine Doll that comes out of an oversized gift box while Herr Drosselmeyer seemingly controls movements from behind.

[She would have said that her granddaughter was the most graceful dancer, as she did after each performance.]

That year, I would have agreed.

It was the culmination of years of hard work, over in less than two minutes but more meaningful than almost anything that came before.

She was perfect.

A few months later, she told me she was going to quit.

For a while, I had expected it. By high school we knew she wasn’t going to become a professional ballerina, maybe one of the girls would, maybe two.

But still.

“You’re going to leave all your friends? The studio that has been your second home for more than a decade?” I thought, but used all my willpower not to say.

And just like that, the greatest holiday tradition we’ve ever known ended, although the gifts we’ve been given will always remain.

This year during the performance my daughter was backstage helping younger dancers change costumes between songs, and my husband and I went to support the girls we had gotten to know over the years.

When “March” began I started to cry because there were other young girls playing party guests for the first time. And the tears continued as I watched the Baby Mice, Big Mice, Reindeer, Snow, Arabian Dancers and Columbine doll.

Because my daughter’s entire childhood replayed in front of me as if in a dream, now it was there, now it was gone.

And one of those girls on stage must have trained a decade for her very first solo. And it was likely her grandmother was there too; cheering the loudest, loving the most fiercely, and telling her afterwards she was the most graceful dancer in the show.

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