Nutcracker set for this weekend

Many performers have fans who worship the ground they walk on. Jordan Koch has one fan who kisses her feet, or at least her shoes.

Koch plays the Sugar Plum Fairy in the production of "The Nutcracker," set for Thanksgiving weekend at the

Alex Card of Vermillion portrays the prince in the Dakota Dance Associations biennial production of The Nutcracker, set for this weekend at the Yankton High School/Summit Activities Center in Yankton. He is shown dancing with Whitney Duarte, who shares (with Hailey Luken) the role of Clara in the production. (Kelly Hertz/P

Summit Activities Center. The Dakota Dance Association sponsors the ballet, held in alternating years.

At age 17 and a Yankton High School senior, Koch is making her final performance in the classic ballet. But while she and other cast members are taking their final curtain calls, they have influenced younger dancers for years to come.

"I have a little girl who kisses my point shoes whenever she sees me at rehearsal because it gives her confidence," Koch said. "You feel like you're a role model. It's like (the younger dancers) look up to me."

Dancers can range in age from second grade to high school seniors. Many dancers have performed in multiple productions, and the "Nutcracker" has been passed down from one generation to another.

Approximately 200 dancers take to the stage. Besides Koch, this year's lead dancers include Alex Card as the prince, with Whitney Duarte and Hailey Luken alternating the role of Clara.

Card attends Vermillion High School, while the three girls attend Yankton High School. Card, Koch and Duarte are performing this "Nutcracker" for the last time, as they graduate this spring. Luken, a 15-year-old sophomore, remains eligible for the next production in two years.

The three seniors admit they haven't really thought about their final performances, instead focusing on putting on their best possible performance. They expect it all will become reality when they take to the stage for the final time.

"It's depressing. I have been dancing for my entire life and have always gone to dance class. It hasn't hit me yet," Koch said. "I'll probably break down during my last performance. But right now, I'm too tired to feel it."

That feeling of exhaustion �" overcome by adrenaline �" has hit the dancers as they intensify practices down the home stretch.

Card puts in an additional hour a day just in drive time for rehearsals in Yankton.

"When you live in Vermillion, you just become used to (the commuting)," he said. "You leave 30 minutes earlier, and you get home 30 minutes later. We have put 2,000 miles our car driving to and from rehearsals."

Koch, Duarte and Luken not only perform in the "Nutcracker," but they also perform with the YHS dance team. In the midst of the intense "Nutcracker" schedule, they competed in last Saturday's state high school Cheer and Dance Team competition in Yankton.

The dance schedule has been draining, Duarte said. "Right now, we have put in 30 hours a week for dance class, the dance team and the 'Nutcracker'. It's stressful," she said.

So how do they do it? "You learn to multi-task," Luken said.

The dancers are driven by passion, Duarte said. "We go until 10 p.m. most nights, and we went from 1-8:30 on Sunday. You have got to love it," she said.

And the 30 hours of dance comes on top of school, church, family and other obligations.

"You learn to manage your time, every second of the day as much as you can," Koch said. "You think of homework, dance class and 'Nutcracker.'"

Luken agreed, noting everything suffers if any one thing falls behind. "At school, it's hard because you worry abut getting things done. You have dance on your mind, and you try to finish all your homework during the day," she said.

A full night's sleep becomes a luxury during this home stretch, Duarte said. "It's about time management. You get about five hours of sleep," she said.

The dancers don't even get an extended break for Thanksgiving. They have full dress rehearsal next Wednesday, then it's four performances on the three days following Thanksgiving.

Will they need to forego the big Thanksgiving meal? The question brings a laugh and an emphatic "no" from the teens.

"We have a high metabolism. You would be surprised how much that dancers can eat," Duarte said.

While the "Nutcracker" is associated with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the work actually begins during the summer.

"During Riverboat Days (in August), you are nervous because you know the auditions are coming up the next week," Koch said. "I really wanted this part (of Sugar Plum Fairy) ever since I was a little kid."

The dancers' experience has allowed for more difficult moves, said Dorota Dannenbring, who choreographs the show."We have been performing a variety of turns and jumps considered the hardest in classical ballet," she said. "We have several students that have performed the 'Nutcracker' since age 7. Now, we have seniors who perform quality classical movements."

The older dancers have also passed along a great stage presence and work ethic for the younger dancers, Dannenbring said.

"We are all sad for the juniors and seniors who leave the 'Nutcracker'. It is so emotional," she said. "But this is also the time when younger dancers are influenced and inspired by older dancers."

Terry Winter, who has directed "Nutcracker" for 18 years, has also experienced the production as a father. His three children, now adults, all performed in the ballet. He has seen entire families become involved with the effort, from performing to backstage work to making special trips to find costumes and props.

"I have found, with dance families, if you have the first little girl that takes dance and loves it, then the rest of the daughters want to do it," he said.

Parents loyally bring their children to rehearsals. Those who don't work backstage can be found in the seats reading books, working on laptops and helping their children prepare for their next scene.

"Parents also make trips right and left, looking for bells for sheep costumes, coming up with samples of make-up ideas and making alterations," Winter said. "You can't stress enough how important the parental involvement is. It's that continuity that makes it work."

Dannenbring likewise knows the feelings of parental pride, as five of her seven children have performed in the "Nutcracker". She delivered her first child during a rehearsal period for "Nutcracker", and now her youngest boy can hardly wait to perform the ballet.

Winter and Dannenbring have worked together for 23 years, adding to the continuity.

"Dorota has a real knack of helping young (dancers) develop grace and skill that stays with them for a lifetime. They stay committed for years," Winter said.

Yankton also benefits from having two studios �" the Academy of Dance and Judi's Dance Studio �" that provide an influx of well-trained, talented young dancers, Winter said.

"It's remarkable and unique, that an amateur group can produce this kind of Christmas fantasy," Winter said. "To have an enormously fantastic production, a community of this size can thank its lucky stars."

"The Nutcracker" has become an emotional experience, Winter said. "There aren't many dry eyes because you come away with such a profound, enriching experience," he said.

Lynn Moser, chairwoman of Dakota Dance Association, also becomes emotional when talking about the productions. She began sobbing during an interview when talking about seeing one daughter performing her last "Nutcracker" next week.

"I am not the only one, as other board members and many other parents are in the same situation," she said. "However, there are those of us who are fortunate because we have younger children who are coming up and still performing."

"The Nutcracker" has truly become a family affair for Moser, whose entire family �" including her husband and herself �" performed in 2006 version. Other adults have held roles in the production through the years.

"Nutcracker" has become a family tradition even for those without anyone on stage, Dannenbring said.

"It has become popular for families to go together to the 'Nutcracker' performance," she said. "We are excited about it falling on Thanksgiving weekend. It is a gift from us to the community."

Moser has heard from people who would like to see an annual performance.

"I was talking with an employee at the Summit Center. Even last year, he was getting questions about it," she said. "We had gotten comments about why we don't do it every year, but it takes a lot out of you. I don't know if we could do it every year."

Those making their final performance are approaching the experience with bittersweet feelings.

"It hasn't hit you that it's your last time," Card said. "It's been a lot of fun, particularly this year when we are doing more fun turns."

Koch felt things fall into place when she put on her costume for the first time.

"I looked up and really felt the part. It was like I was dreaming," she said.

Dannenbring teaches the four lead dancers at her studio, and the teenagers say she has left an impression that will last long after next week's performances.

"I would like to take college ballet classes. My dream is to open up my own dance studio," Koch said.

Dannenbring, who was trained at a dance academy in her native Poland, brings different training and experiences, Luken said.

"Dorota is amazing, to have someone from a different country, and with her studies, offering classes and directing us here in Yankton," she said.

Duarte agreed. "We ask her to say something in Polish. It's just awesome to hear her accent and to hear her speak," she said.

But Dannenbring speaks softly, Card said. "Dorota never raises her voice or says anything mean," he said.

The dancers said they don't want to disappoint those around them, even themselves.

"During this final week (of rehearsals), we will try really hard," Luken said. "We are all trying to be as good as we can be."

Duarte looks forward to seeing the curtain rise. "You put in hundreds of hours of practice for a 1 1/2-hour performance," she said.

Dannenbring credits the dancers for their hard work.

"It's all about the kids, not me. They are the ones who make it the best," she said. "The kids find success that will help them in the future with whatever they choose to do in life."

The Nutcracker performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28.

Advance tickets are on sale at the J.C. Penney entrance to the Yankton Mall. The booth is staffed 6-8:30 p.m. weekdays and 1-4:30 p.m. weekends. The mall is closed Thanksgiving Day, and tickets go on sale again from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26. Tickets are also available at the door prior to each performance.

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