Earlier this fall, our seven-year-old daughter went to her first dance audition and won the part of a Ginger Snap in The Nutcracker.
While she’s been taking dance classes since she was three, this was the first time she’d be dancing in a big show.
We were both overjoyed since this is a beautiful, large-scale production that the kids and I attend every single December. I knew it would involve lots of practices each weekend and be a big commitment — for both of us — but what I wasn’t prepared for was something I started referring to as the Nutcracker Nasties.
During every run-through and rehearsal, our daughter would be a perfect angel. She’d happily sit there for three hours, eating snacks and playing with the quiet activities I’d packed for her in a special bag.
She only appeared in one scene so there was a lot of waiting around, but she didn’t mind. When it was her turn to dance, she’d go through her number, beaming, and then sit back down to watch the others.
The rehearsals really started increasing two weeks before the production, and that’s when I got my first (bitter) taste of the Nutcracker Nasties. She’d behave perfectly at the dance studio but explode with tears and/or sauciness as soon as we were back at home.
“She’s overtired,” I kept reminding myself through gritted teeth. “This is a lot for a seven-year-old. She’s exhausted.”
We put her to bed earlier on the non-rehearsal nights and urged her to sleep in the next morning. We cut back on the sugar and plied her with extra fruits and veggies. We tried putting her straight into the tub after rehearsal in an attempt to calm down her raging mood.
Friends reminded me that she was holding it together during rehearsals and falling apart at home because we’re her “safe place.” I’d certainly rather her behave well in public and lash out at home, but it’s no treat being sassed by a smaller version of yourself.
I overheard more experienced dance moms talk about how they always need to keep their child home from school on the Monday following “Nutcracker weekend” (two shows on Saturday and one on Sunday, plus a cast wrap party). I silently agreed with them and planned to do the same.
Now we’re in the final days leading up to the dress rehearsal and the three shows, and I’m already bracing myself for the crankiness. She’ll be backstage (or on the stage) for about five hours on Friday, 6-7 hours on Saturday and another 4-5 hours on Sunday — plus the cast party later on, if she can stay awake.
I have special “stay quiet backstage” activities I’ve reserved for this final push, and I have promised to pack her special snacks. I think I’ll also be sending her with an old iPhone (and headphones) for watching videos while she waits.
I’m prepared to rush her off to bed as soon as possible on those three nights, and I have already accepted that there will be crying … so much crying.
While the post-practice mood swings at home have been intense, I know I’ll still eagerly agree when she asks to audition next fall.
While our daughter has always been independent and confident, being dropped off at so many rehearsals has shown me how self-assured and grown-up she can be. She’d only known a couple of children going into the first practice, but she quickly made friends with lots of others and she’s been having the best time with them.
She used to be shy around the many teenage dancers at the studio, but now she adores that they know her name and will stop to chat with her. It’s like being part of a special little club! They even have matching Nutcracker cast hoodies, which she wears with pride.
The last two and a half months have been so much fun for both of us. I’ve gotten into the action by sewing a prop and joining the backstage makeup team.
It’s been a real mother/daughter bonding experience for us, chatting about the different dances, costumes and scenes as Tchaikovsky twinkles through our heads.
I actually teared up during yesterday’s rehearsal as my girl danced across the stage with the brightest smile on her face. This Nutcracker life is all-consuming and very tiring, but it’s also a special kind of magic I’m so glad we’re able to experience together.
This column was originally printed in the Dec. 3 issue of The City Voice.