Gaby Deslys

Writer Patrice Hutton used to dance ballet all the time–as a kid–but when she gets the call to play a small part in The Nutcracker, it’s been a few years. Enjoy our last-minute Christmas gift to you, a traipse through the most magical stage show the holiday allows. (Patrice founded Writers in Baltimore Schools, by the way, a nonprofit that provides literary development to low-income students.)

Sunday (my first rehearsal)

In a late 2022 plot twist, I get invited to Clara’s party again. That is, I’m making a Nutcracker comeback (in my mid-30s). It’s unheard of to be cast the week before the show, especially when it’s been 19 years since your last production. My sister’s DC-based company needs guests for the party scene. So when the role comes up, I take it before I can decide not to. Before I can remember that my work life Decembers are a crunch of year-end non-profit wrap-up–evaluations, holiday cards, and fundraising. But mostly before I can actually remember what it feels like to perform.

I’ve been taught a dance with simple choreography set to a familiar beat, but the soutenus and chaîne turns leave me dizzy and stumbling out of steps. I’m hoping performing feels better than this rehearsal does. As a figure skater, I’ve been working on a dance called the Canasta Tango, and I’m struck by how much steadier I feel on ice than I do this floor.

As a Party Parent, I am assigned three daughters (Party Children). One year as a Party Child myself, my actual parents played stage parents to my sister and me. Another year, I had cool, new parents. This makes me wonder what I need to do to qualify as a Cool Party Mom.

“You’re my mom. For now. Do you have any dogs?” my tiniest girl asks. Oh child. This is a sore subject because I don’t quite know why I don’t have a dog.

“I love dogs. I walk my friends’ dogs,” I say.

“I have five,” she beams.

“Bye, Mom!” another daughter grins at me on her way out.

This 9-year-old wore glasses throughout rehearsal, and even though it is never okay to wear glasses in a ballet, this is a laid-back production. Maybe—like mother, like daughter—I can be the Party Parent who wears glasses. Yet I find I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone–my sister included–if glasses might possibly be okay.

Monday & Tuesday (awaiting my next rehearsal)

My sister informs me that both performances have sold out. Thank goodness–a concrete excuse to keep my inquiring friends away. Friends only know about the show if I’ve pulled out the old “I can’t, I have rehearsal” line to decline plans. Nobody needs to see my rusty dancing and rustier acting.

When I tell my mom I’m going to be in The Nutcracker, she asks, “Were you invited?” And when I ask my dad if he’s seen the news on the group text, he says, “Oh, I thought you were joking.” It’s been that long since I’ve performed. My last real show was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Peabody my freshman year of college.

My last attempt to learn and perform choreography occurred in a fox costume in a field in Kansas six years back. It was Christmas Eve morning, and I’d been on a party bus the night before. A childhood ballet friend voluntold my sister and me that we were to dance in her short film, “Last Chance to Dance.” Four of us learned the dance. One–the non-dancer–was cut before filming. And bless him for being the weak link because I was next on the chopping block. In the film’s dance number, I’m consistently a half beat behind my prey. (Prey = the Gunnison sage-grouse, for whom we made the film. December 2016 was a vulnerable time for us all, human and grouse.)

So, my parents can’t be blamed for thinking I’m joking. And when they put in their time as Party Parents–two years for my mom, five for my dad–they rehearsed weekly, September through December. My shortcut to the stage is unfathomable to all.

Wednesday (second rehearsal)

I con my glasses-wearing party child to ask the glasses question for me. “Do you get to wear those in the performance?” I ask. I think she might know the answer. She doesn’t, so she runs up to the director and asks. “Let me think about it,” I hear the director tell her.

My tiniest party child again asks if I have a dog. Despite browsing BARCS listings near daily since Sunday, I do not. I show her pictures of my friend’s Great Danes, and she draws another child near to bask in their majesty. They ask me for snacks, which I, too, am on the prowl for. I’ve been contemplating ordering Uber Eats to rehearsal (Cool Mom move?). The child asks me if orange peels are edible, and feeling like I’m in loco parentis, I stick with a simple “no.”

Thursday (tech rehearsal)

I’m waiting in the wings in a cherry-colored gown. I spot my sister across the stage, ready to assess if it was a good idea to let her big sister infiltrate Nutcracker. Back in the day, I would have thought nothing of her presence. But since then, she’s danced with companies in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, and now DC. This is her twenty-fourth season of Nutcracker. I’m usually the one watching her.

“Do you know our music?” my kids whisper. They’re the first to enter after the overture ends. “Um, yeah,” I lie. Mom’s on it. I’ve been so focused on learning and retaining my dance that I’ve forgotten there’s so much else you need to remember for the twenty minutes of party scene. It turns out I don’t remember any of the cues: when we present our children with presents, when we assemble for lighting of the tree, or (yikes) even when our dance starts. Our children are in the way as our music starts, so we rush our steps to make up time we’ve lost. I turn right, left, right, left—by the end, I’m so I dizzy I wonder how I used to make it through daily ballet class.

Friday (dress rehearsal)

In my days as a party child, my coil-tight ringlets came into being with gel and hairspray before and after a night in foam rollers. Now, after a day of working remotely from DC, I have one hour before dress rehearsal to transform into a Victorian socialite. After disappointing curling iron attempts, I twist the hot curls and pin them into coils on my head. At the theater, I remove the coils just before we take the stage. Curl success! “Your hair looks different,” a child says. “But it looks good.” My glasses are still on, as are my stage daughter’s. We go to the party that way. We dance that way. The Nutcracker doll still comes to life. Clara still makes it to the Land of Sweets.

Saturday (opening night)

My day starts with an extra dose of Nutcracker. I tag along to watch my sister perform the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” for her other company’s performance in Columbia. After the show, every preschool-aged dancer wants a picture with her.

At the theater that night in DC, I want a picture with my party children. We–the Red Family–pose, daughters gathered in front of my outstretched, evening-gloved arms. I catch the image in the mirror, and suddenly it feels very real. I’m about to take the stage. It’s opening night.

And then I’m back at my favorite party of the season. My dear children curtsy to the Stalbaums, and I greet Mrs. Stahlbaum, who looks ravishing in green. She pours us a delightful champagne, and we watch our children play. The girls open their gifts and are delighted with their new dolls. And after the children dance, we mothers can’t help but dance ourselves. I twirl, keeping time with my friends, and we fan into a pinwheel, parading with arms touching in the center. I chaîne–making a string of tight turns–and then chaîne back the other way. My cheeks are flush after Mrs. Stalhbaum leads our romp, and I catch my breath as we pass a candle to light the tree. The mysterious Drosselmeyer appears, bringing with him life-size mechanical dolls. Heavens! My silly girls get too close for my liking. And then poor Clara’s new nutcracker doll is broken by her pesky little sister. My girls and I watch Drosselmeyer work his magic repairing the doll. And then I must whisk my girls home to bed, grateful for another Christmas Eve at the Stalbaums.

Sunday (final show)

Another performance, another romp at the Stahlbaums in my cherry-colored gown. My ringlets bounce and my pearls fly as I dance for a final time. I forget a step, which I only realize as the other dancers chaîne past me while I turn in place. By the time I catch up, their chaînes are coming back in the other direction. Maybe I’ll remember this mistake twenty-eight years later, like I still remember the mistake I made in my Nutcracker debut as a mouse. But I keep going. The Nutcracker doll still comes to life. Clara still makes it to the Land of Sweets. 

“You were great!” my sister hugs me.

Growing up, the final Sunday of Nutcracker was bittersweet. We’d practically lived in the theater since Wednesday, and now we faced our last show. But we had a spring performance to look forward to. 

Now I have no idea when my next ballet will be, but participating in this Nutcracker has been a gift come from thin air. For twenty-minute chunks, I was no longer a non-profit professional with PetFinder tabs open. I was a guest at a glorious party; I was but one dancer that came together to bring an elaborate show to life. For me, the best seat in the house remains standing in the wings–that is, watching before and after I chaperon my party children to the Stalbaums’ much-anticipated fete, before and after I dance.

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