Behind the Ballet: Dancing into the Holiday Season with The Nutcracker

Gianna Hutton, Senior Media Editor

Every year as the holiday season rolls around, dance companies across the U.S. rollout performances of “The Nutcracker” — a hallmark tradition for families and dancers alike. While Miami does not have the classic “white Christmas,” ballet dancers cement the Christmas spirit as they fouette under palm trees. 

“Today every ballet company and ballet school in the United States puts on a Nutcracker. I believe it sets the time for the season,” Artistic Director of the South Florida Ballet studio Jennifer Sedler-Rose said. “In Miami, we truly need that. It’s a tradition for many. For my ballet studio it is a must, my students always improve theory performance skills every time they dance a live performance.”

“The Nutcracker’s” debut spans back to 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Tchaikovsky’s Suite of his eight most known pieces, including “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the “Russian Dance,” becoming an international sensation. In 1944, the San Francisco Ballet company introduced the ballet to the U.S. on Christmas Eve, and seventy years later, it has become as American as decorating the Christmas tree. 

“When you are watching, it’s really just this beautiful picture and storyline that you are going through of the holidays and just how much happiness surrounds the time of year,” Miami Palmetto Senior High School senior, Variations member and ballet dancer Catherine Bales said. “Even the small ensembles throughout Act Two like marzipan, tea, candy canesThey are so intricate, and yet they are a minute long and you watch them and end with a smile.”

Sedler-Rose began dancing in 1975 at age 6, learning in a garage converted into a dance studio nearby Miami Palmetto Senior High. By age 8, she became exposed to ballet technique, and at age 12, she trained at Martha Mahr School of Ballet. She would drive from Miami-Dade to Broward County just to practice. Throughout her teenage years, she trained with the Milwaukee Ballet and was accepted into several other prestigious international summer programs, such as the San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet. Graduating from New World School of Arts, she joined the Orlando Ballet until suffering an injury. 

“I wasn’t there long; after a month after I tore my Achilles tendon. After surgeries and physical therapy I knew I had to try something other than dance,” Sedler-Rose said. 

In 1997, Sedler-Rose opened the doors to the South Florida Ballet Studio. 

“After teaching all over Miami, I wanted to settle since I had an infant daughter. My husband found me a small space to open up a dance studio. After 7 years of operation, we had to move to a larger space with over 7,000 square feet,” Sedler-Rose said. 

Bales, a senior at Palmetto, has danced for approximately 15 years, performing in “The Nutcracker” for the past 11 years with the South Florida Ballet dance studio. Her roles have included mouse, soldier, polichinelle, angel, bunny, candy cane and this year, she performed as the lead snowflake, lead tea dancer and a flower. 

“My favorite part I’ve danced is [as the] snowflake. Although it’s so long — you’re dancing on your toes for seven whole minutes and having to remember choreography for seven minutes — I love the music and I just love at the end when you’re seeing the curtain close and you are knowing that you are closing act one and the snow is falling,” Bales said. 

The studio has been performing “The Nutcracker” since 1998, with thousands of kids growing up alongside the 20 performances. 

“My favorite part of this journey as a parent has been watching her grow in her art. She started as this little girl exploring movement and has become a beautiful ballerina confident in herself and her art. I’ve seen how dance has taught her confidence, perseverance, and the ability to deal with setbacks and disappointment,” Bales’ mother, Michelle Bevilacqua said. 

This year, the South Florida Ballet performed “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 4 at the Ransom Everglades School Auditorium in Coconut Grove. Three-hour rehearsals commenced in September, all in preparation for “The Nutcracker” show itself — every day of the week with the exception of Mondays and Sundays until their December show. While seemingly long, Bales recalls some of her fondest memories during these rehearsals.  

“I vividly remember rehearsing bunnies with my two friends; we were in third grade and I had to hide behind Claire’s bed. We were rehearsing and the bed broke as I’m running and diving down to the floor and we just laughed. We cannot stop laughing every year now. With the bunnies, we joke and we’re like ‘Don’t let the couch break,’” Bales said. 

After a year in lockdown due to the global health pandemic — one characterized by stress and worry surrounding health concerns — Sedler-Rose knew she had to do her best to preserve the show’s tradition. 

“This past Nutcracker was a bit stressful. I was quite nervous with funds but knew in my heart I had to make it a possibility for my students. After a year and a half with the pandemic I truly didn’t know if I would have a ballet studio,”  Sedler-Rose said. “Many of my older students helped with fundraising so I could afford the expenses for this production. I am blessed to have supportive parents and students who have helped in so many ways.”

For the families of dancers, the tradition of watching their loved ones glisten on stage has become a holiday staple in itself. 

“Every year The Nutcracker fills me with panic. I always worry about how she is going to fit in school, dance, and rehearsals. But every year, without fail, she gets it done. And her performance is certainly a tradition. The whole family goes each year to watch her perform,” Bevilacqua said. 

As a senior in high school, this was Bales’ last year performing the Nutcracker as she leaves her studio to focus on her college career, making this year’s dance even more special. 

“It’s just really bittersweet, and I think what I’ll miss the most about it is just going every day is honestly the bond I’ve made with my director Miss Jennifer through everything she’s been there for me and she’s never given up on me,” Bales said. “She always believed in me, even when I didn’t even believe in myself.” 

Likewise, for families, this final show sparks feelings of a bittersweet ending and pride for the years of work put into the art. 

“Her last performance is certainly bittersweet. Actually, it was quite emotional, more emotional than I was prepared for it to be. Through 15 years of dance, thousands of hours of classes and rehearsals, countless injuries, numerous setbacks and magnificent returns and performances, I hope Catherine has learned on this journey that she can do anything that she sets her mind to accomplish. That she is stronger than her doubts. And I hope she knows that nothing makes my heart happier than watching her dance,” Bevilacqua said. 

While Bales does not plan to continue dancing in the annual performance, the lessons and memories learned from the stage will follow her for a lifetime.

“I think the lesson I’ve learned the most that I’ll take into my future is that you know, you go through so much in dancephysically, mentally, emotionally, and it’s like, sometimes you don’t think you can do it like anything in life, but the fact that I can dance on my toes for hours and push my body to do things that your body’s not meant to do, I think has taught me I can do whatever I put my mind to,” Bales said.