Beautiful dancing gives back to children

Beautiful dancing gives back to children
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Debra Peters Rankin with Casey Steel, his daughter Chelsea Virta-Steel and his son Chase.

The opening line in Disney’s song, “A dream is a wish your heart makes” reflects the spirit of Jacksonville’s Community Nutcracker Ballet.
Artistic Directors Dulce Anaya, Beth Marks, Debra Peters Rankin and Mark Spivak‘s dream – a production which would give back to the community and give more dancers performance opportunities – is a reality.

As waltzing flowers break in pointe shoes, muscular young men  flex their muscles to partner ballerinas, and little mice  scurry after the Rat King and Queen to battle the soldiers, dancers prepare to grand jete onto the stage of the Florida Theatre on Dec. 13-14 for the 22nd production of Community Nutcracker.

Marks said, “The longevity of the production is so gratifying. I don’t think any of us knew we’d last as long or be as well received as we have been.”

The ballet has over 200 dancers from 35 studios, hundreds of volunteers who help with the production, and last year alone donated $40,000 to local charities. The principal recipient was Dreams Come True, a non-profit organization dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of children with life-threatening illnesses.

After five years of performing in Community Nutcracker, a very happy Randi Alt landed the role of Clara and will  pirouette through the Land of Sweets led by this year’s guest artists Laura Valentin as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Jose Rodriguez as her Cavalier from Balleteatro Nacional de Puerto Rica. Alt says it is a “win-win situation” – dancers’ dreams come true and a Dreams Come True child’s wish is granted.

Dreamers’ wishes for trips to Disney World, Disney cruises, shopping expeditions and even baseball games have been granted by support from the ballet. Emma Armstrong of Village Dance in Ortega also in her fifth year of being part of the production says, “It makes me feel like I’m doing good for someone else while I’m doing something that I love.” Her dream role? Merliton or snowflake.

Young Chelsea Virta-Steel of Avondale explains that she has dreamed of being in the Nutcracker since she first saw it around age four. Now nine and in her first production, she likes being a mouse and “getting to act out and throw cheese at the soldiers.” Brother Chase, a Party boy for the third year, dreams of being Soldier Doll but is having fun sharing the stage with his dad Casey Steel, an attorney with Boyd and Jenerette.

Steel says his law partners, although supportive, find his love of the Nutcracker “pretty interesting.” He started his dancing “career” as a pirate in a “calling-all-dads-we-need-pirates” plea in Karen van Landingham’s (Village Dance) and Debra Rankin’s (Baggs Studio of Ballet) productions of  Peter Pan.

He relates that Rankin later handed him the audition schedule for Nutcracker and said, “I expect you to be there.” Who can argue with their children’s ballet teacher?
“I love being on the stage and The Nutcracker Party scene is so much fun. Giving back to the community is a big thing in our house,” said Steel. Wife Cheryl Virta is active in the nonprofit Hearts of a Feather. Steel’s dream role? “Maybe Rat King or Drosselmeyer,” he said.

Brother and sister Morgan and Roland Murwin of Murray Hill have dream roles as well –  Roland wants to be the prince and “battle the big rat king.” Morgan has professional aspirations and longs to be the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Rankin, choreographer for Party scene, said she was shocked when her son William Peters auditioned for Nutcracker after several years of not dancing. “I’m so proud of him and so happy that he is keeping up our family’s dance tradition. It’s just in his genes.”

Landing the coveted roles of Arabian and Rat King, Peters will partner Erin Pitts, herself from a dance family which includes parents Becki and Eddie Pitts and brother Evan.
This legacy of dance is evident throughout the ballet. Winnie Pajcic of Ortega is following in her mother Annie’s footsteps; a bonbon this year, she aspires to be Clara or the Dew Drop Fairy like her mother was.

Insightful young Pajcic said that being in Community Nutcracker is very special for her since donations help her friend who attends the Sanctuary on 8th Street. “It is amazing to be part of something that is not just entertainment but that helps people – the dancers, the people who donate money and the audience all help.”

Slipping on her ballet slippers at age four, Beth Marks of Ballet Arts Centre in St. Nicholas and choreographer of Battle Scene and Arabian has a rich dance legacy. Her mother Betty Balfour Marks, along with Thelma Johnston Baggs, Mervyn Rikard and Marta Jackson, started the first production of The Nutcracker Ballet in Jacksonville.
Marks’ dream role? “Well, it would have to be Arabian. I’ve danced it so many times – now I enjoy choreographing it.”

Spivak said his dreams have gone beyond all expectations. “Becoming a citizen 33 years ago, being part of the community, participating at such a level, and that so many people benefit from our production – it is all way beyond what I thought I could achieve.”

Like Spivak, Anaya danced her way around the world to realize her dreams in Jacksonville. For dancers, dreamers, choreographers and coerced dads – wishes really do come true – it is the heart of Jacksonville Community Nutcracker Ballet.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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