Community Nutcracker: The not-so-over-the-hill gang

By Peggy Harrell Jennings

Neither heart surgeries, cancer, torn ligaments, ruptured tendons, arthritis, aching rotator cuffs, tendonitis, degenerating discs, back surgery, broken toes or dare I mention it — age — will keep some of the more senior dancers from performing in one of the most beloved holiday traditions of all time, The Community Nutcracker Ballet.
On Dec. 7 and 8, the Florida Theatre will reverberate with Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score as this dedicated group of dancers take the stage for the not first, not tenth — but the 21st time. The group of dancers — which includes Dr. George Trotter, Curtis Evelyn, Rosalyn Evelyn, Sue Barry, Geraldine Travis and Peggy Harrell Jennings — has a combined 120 years of Nutcracker experience in this production alone!
Although most of the longtime participants are Riverside, Avondale or Ortega residents, the gang has honorary members in The Evelyns and Dr. Avis Chen Boulter, residents of “the other side of the river.”
Peggy Harrell Jennings started taking regular ballet classes when she was nine years old. At an average of three classes per week, 48 weeks a year, 32 plies (deep knee bends in a turned out position for you non dancers) per barre — that’s 3,608 plies per year. She gives a conservative estimate that she has accomplished 200,000 plies in a lifetime of dance. At an age when playing the role of the Grandmother is not really “playing”, Harrell who is a breast cancer survivor and has experienced ruptured tendons and a torn ACL says, “ No wonder my knees hurt!”
Curtis Evelyn, at 60-plus years, has maintained his slim, muscular physique through dance training. Although having his share of back problems from partnering — try catching a 100 pound girl as she flies through the air and lifting her over your head (numerous times) — Curtis has overcome his pain over the years. His love of dance has prevailed over all minor and major physical aggravations. Look out Emmett Smith!
George Trotter, celebrating his 21st year as Herr Drosselmeyer, has danced many roles. He only recently relinquished grueling pas de deux from his repertoire.  Debbie Peters Rankin, Community Nutcracker Party Scene artistic director and owner /director of Baggs Studio of Ballet notes that Trotter embodies the character to the point that his role as a primary care doc may be his alter ego instead of the other way around.
Curtis and Rosalyn Evelyn, whose love affair and subsequent marriage was made in Nutcracker heaven, have graced the stage as guests and as the Rat King and Rat Queen in party scene for numerous years.  Their menacing manner and Rosalyn’s beautiful, mysterious presence in the first scene contribute to the drama of the upcoming Battle scene directed by Beth Marks.
Sue Barry has been a regular on the stage since Community Nutcracker’s beginnings as a party guest as well as dancing the roles of Grandmother and the maid. She hasn’t let little things like skin cancer or vein surgery hold her back.
“Each year is like a reunion — some of the dancers in the Party Scene have been together in this ballet for over 20 years — we are old friends,” she said. “Changing roles and adding new performers each year adds to the fun.  It’s like going to a real party. You get all dressed up and hang out with your friends but the food is fake and the glasses are empty.”
Weeks after open-heart surgery and five by passes, Trotter was back in class at Baggs Studio of Ballet wearing a heart monitor.
“George would be happy if he died on a stage, “ quipped fellow dancer Curtis Evelyn.
Each of the Not so Over the Hill gang trains at Baggs on Tuesday nights from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in an adult ballet class taught by Ms. Peggy. They can be found after class at European Street on Park Street continuing their lively dance discussions. Who knew that this commitment to dance and to Community Nutcracker Ballet would forge friendships that have lasted longer than most of the other performers have been alive?
Nearly 120 years after The Nutcracker’s first performance in December of 1892, the curtain rises on six dancers whose 120 years of dancing experience has cemented friendships based on mutual respect, dedication, commitment to their art and a “No whining” policy.
Neither illness, injury, surgery nor accidents has kept the Gang from performing in The Community Nutcracker at the beautiful Florida Theatre.

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