Two weeks before opening day, children ages 4 to 6 march at the Central Mississippi Dance in Brandon, Mississippi, wearing gold horns and white replica guns while Eminem’s “Like Toy Soldiers” blares through the studio’s speakers.
The music then descends into upbeat hip-hop instrumental, and three dancers playing mice follow dance instructor Tena Long’s moves as she demonstrates how to perform the Milly Rock, a two-step dance in which the performer joins arms left and right swings right, which has its origins in New York City.
A young girl playing a soldier taps the floor, mesmerized by the noise her shoes make as she awaits further instructions.
This year, Central Mississippi Dance adds an urban twist to a classic show by blending diverse dance styles — ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, and acrobatics — into a production of “The Nutcracker” that is months in the making .
“We really just wanted to incorporate and bring a different, unique style to The Nutcracker because when people hear the story of The Nutcracker, all they hear is dot and classical ballet or classical music,” says Faith Grier, of Central Mississippi Dance Instructor. “MS. Reagan really wanted to bring out a different side of it because she was like, ‘There are so many genres of dance that sometimes people just don’t integrate.'”
Grier, who herself has been dancing since she was 3 years old, now teaches dance to children between the ages of 2 and 6. She says she loves seeing the children’s faces light up as they learn a new step.
“I’ve always believed that dancing was the perfect way to express everything you’re going through at any point in life,” says Grier. “And with preschool, they jump for joy. You are excited to learn. And then they rush home and say, ‘Mom, look what I’ve done. Look what I learned to dance today!’”
Madysen Loper, 6, wears a black leotard, tights and ballet shoes and plays one of the mice. Lawanda Gray, her mother, explains that her daughter started dancing before she could walk and that the child always wanted to be a ballerina.
“This is her first participation in ballet,” says Gray. “She was interested in trying out for The Nutcracker, so I auditioned her and she became part of the street rats.”
Feeling Madysen was ready to learn choreography, Gray auditioned her daughter for the August concert. Although Madysen’s loves are ballet and tap dancing, her mother says she was given a new challenge by learning how to dance hip-hop.
“I’m thrilled that she likes it because I want her to be in something she wants to do, not what I want her to be,” Gray says. “She’s enjoyed it since she started.”
‘I’m here for you’
Planning for the concert dates back to this summer, when Central Mississippi dance director Reagan Cooper and instructors met to discuss December’s performance in detail. They agreed to integrate multiple dance genres, a principle on which the studio is based.
“We offer everything from mommy (and) me classes with babies to hip-hop and tap dancing for adults,” says Cooper. “Our strength is classical ballet. So we just mix everything together and pull out the bits that we thought would really shine.”
The studio employs 12 instructors, each with their own specialty and niche. Cooper says she tried to group the instructors into their preferred discipline and give them free rein.
“With hip-hop, the mice, we really couldn’t see anything but hip-hoppers,” says the director. “Roger and Tena (dance teachers) are fantastic. We gave them the opportunity to mix their music by adding some of the Nutcracker’s classic tunes (with) ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’.”
The studio held auditions for the concert in August, where attendees could choose their three favorite dance styles and audition in all of them. From there, the coaches selected dancers for various roles that they felt would best suit them. In all, the ensemble has about 85 dancers from neighboring cities such as Brandon, Madison and the Jackson area.
“These are all local kids, and that’s really cool,” says Cooper. “I mean, that says a lot. There’s a lot of talent here in our state, so I think that’s really great. I said (Nora and Trey) last night, ‘You’re all very special because you’re all local and there’s so much local talent.'”
Teacher Faith Grier says it was a beautiful experience to see the children make friends and grow closer to each other, regardless of whether they attend different schools or live in different cities. The older kids helped each other during rehearsals and also built stronger relationships in the process, she notes.
“There are times when some kids get overwhelmed, but that’s when we come in as teachers and say, ‘It’s going to be okay. we have you We are here with you,” says Grier. “And then her friends come in too, hug and say, ‘I’m here for you.'”
“A Chance to Shine”
Sitting with a laptop on her knees, rehearsal director Leslie Johnson goes through solo performances with Nora Robertson playing the Sugar Plum Fairy and Tre Hunt playing the Cavalier and the Nutcracker.
As Johnson introduces a classical music track, Robertson and Hunt step to the center of the floor and bow to each other. Robertson raises one leg and bends it at an angle so she is standing on one leg. Although she feels pain from the five-hour practice the day before, she doesn’t show it. Hunt spins them in circles, using his arm for leverage and support. They move fluidly and take their time as Johnson guides them.
Hunt is a student at Hinds Community College while Robertson attends Germantown High School. Hunt’s strong dance background made it very easy for others like Robertson to work with him, Cooper says.
“Nora really has that in her head now that ‘He’s got me everywhere I am,’ and she feels safe,” Cooper says of the duo.
Leslie Johnson was involved in everything from editing the music to blocking transition scenes to choreographing dances, including performances by Robertson and Hunt.
“[Nora Robertson]is such a sweet person and I really enjoyed working with her,” says Johnson. “Tre, I’ve known her for almost a decade now. I actually taught him at Hinds Community College. He’s such a sweet young man. He really is that talented.”
Cooper hopes audiences will realize that The Nutcracker can be expressed in more ways than just classical ballet, and that those interested don’t need to be a student or have previous dance experience to join in, as the show uses dance for all ages and skill levels.
“Some kids might go to The Nutcracker and really want to get involved, but they’re not a ballerina or more like a hip-hop dancer. … I think it’s really cool for the audience and also for the kids to be showcased and have the opportunity to shine at something they’re good at,” Cooper says.
Central Mississippi Dance’s “The Nutcracker” will take place on Saturday, December 3, 2022 at 5 p.m. at Cain-Cochran Hall on the Hinds Community College campus (501 E. Main St.) in Raymond. Buy tickets here. To learn more about the dance studio, visit centralmsdance.com.