In December the dance talents in rural America whirl into view. Small town studios offer training and, for pros, a chance to teach.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” with its sugar plum fairies, prancing soldiers and dancing mice is as much part of the holiday season as piped-in Christmas music and recycled fruitcake. And although performances of the great ballet typically coincide with Christmas season, rehearsals and other preparations go on year round.
Young dancers have prepared for their roles in this ballet not just in metropolitan areas, with their professional companies and full orchestras, but in small towns, too. From Hutchinson, Kansas to Orangeburg, South Carolina, dance teachers instruct budding performers in ballet — and in tap, modern and even hip-hop style dance, too. The chance to waltz as flowers in December and many other opportunities await young dancers in rural America.
“The Nutcracker” has inspired a host of adaptations but one company in Kansas has put its own regional stamp on the show. Betsie Andrews and her ArtisTree dance company offer “Prairie Nutcracker” to their audience every other year.
Hutchinson is a city of about 50,000. At one time, Andrews and some of her young dancers would collaborate with a ballet company in larger, nearby Wichita. But then the particulars of that opportunity changed, and Andrews offered the idea of “Prairie Nutcracker” as a joke, which soon became reality. Her composer friend Rick Kuethe of Boston insisted on writing music to their choreography, adapting the Tchaikovsky score. “His music still feeds me, still elevates me. It is delightful and charming,” Andrews said.
The Hutchinson prairie tale, adapted from Germany’s Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, is set in 1869 at a fort in western Kansas. Tchaikovsky’s Grand Pas de Deux becomes a church scene, a tribute to the pioneer woman. In the new ballet, the Nutcracker is a toy frontier-soldier. “We decided to focus on the essence of the pioneer spirit and the spirit of Christmas, when children were elated to get an apple as a gift,” said Andrews. The opening party scene is set in the hospital barracks of a military fort. “We’re honoring the pioneers,” she said. Prairie Nutcracker dramatizes “what hard work and sacrifice were about.”
The star of the show since its beginning has been Katie Williamson Flindall portraying the Prairie Doll. Andrews said that Flindall was one of many students who “proved that our work here is worth doing.” Flindall grew up outside of Hutchinson and had a 60-mile round trip commute to the studio. She was home schooled, the daughter and granddaughter of women who had also taken dance from Andrews when the studio was in a church basement. Eventually, young Katie was noticed by a guest artist from the National Ballet of Canada. That was the start of a professional dance career for Flindall, who now lives in Toronto.
“She is an artist in the fullest sense,” Andrews said of Flindall. “She just wanted to dance and breathe, no other aspirations. That shows that any student who has the instrument and foundation can build on it here. We couldn’t be more in the heart of the heartland – we are 90 miles from epicenter of the nation. We are literally cultivating the fruited plain.”
Although not too many of her students stay on that fruited plain of south central Kansas after completing high school, Andrews says she wouldn’t trade the opportunity to teach there for anything. Once a very busy professional dancer in New York and other metropolitan areas, Andrews is close to 60 now and still has “lot of years left.” Her approach to teaching is “not just learning dances, but learning how to dance.” She preaches her Five Ps: “A dance student is prepared and prompt; polite; patient and poised; positive; principled.”
Now out of the church basement with a location of its own on Hutchinson’s Main Street, Andrews said that her center is “just as important to the stuff of life as the restaurant, the hardware store, the people selling clothes across the street. Our goal is to help people live artfully.”
Tamalyn W. Blackman is another dance teacher who works “The Nutcracker” in among other performance opportunities for her students. The director of Tamalyn’s Dance Studio in Orangeburg, South Carolina, she also founded the Orangeburg Civic Ballet, Inc., a non-profit community dance company. Blackman stages “The Nutcracker” every winter, producing other performances, like “Sleeping Beauty,” in the spring. “We try to showcase all our dancers, not strictly the ballerinas. We also do jazz, tap, and hip hop,” Blackman said. “In spring we do education by bringing in guest artists to give master classes.”
Orangeburg, a town of about 12,000, draws from a larger surrounding area. Blackman teaches students as young as three years old, all the way through to adults. Blackman says that most of her serious dance students leave town to study elsewhere once they graduate from high school. Some have gone on to dance professionally. “The majority are looking at field of dance education.” She believes that her students have been well trained, in part because she pulls in teachers from Charleston and Columbia, S.C., both about an hour away. Her students “have the ability to do whatever they want to do.”
Blackman danced professionally with ballet companies in Charleston and elsewhere until an injury ended her professional career. Like Andrews, she teaches her students not just dance itself but the discipline that the art form requires. Her approach was new to the community when she started teaching there 25 years ago.
“They know now that 30 minutes once a week isn’t enough. They have to attend class several times a week, for 90 minutes. They have to wear leotards and tights. It has been a transition to bring this culture into the community,” Blackman says. “It has been well-accepted, though we’re never as pleased as we want to be. That’s the way it is with the arts.”
Still, she says she loves dance with a passion, and teaching dance has been good for her spiritually.
“Our ballet company is family,” she says. “We’re loving, supportive. There’s none of the backbiting that can go on in dance. The students applaud for each other when they dance, and can share criticism without being taken the wrong way. That’s the part I like about it, it is so positive,” Blackman says.
Michael Etzweiler, of Baraboo, Wisconsin, is a dance teacher who came to that part of his career a bit reluctantly. He was born and raised in Wisconsin and “fell in love” with dance as a high school student. He went on to get a degree in musical theatre from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and then studied and danced in several cities. He lived and worked in New York for a time, dancing in touring companies of “Cats” and “Joseph and the Multi-Colored Dream Coat.”
Etzweiler said that eventually he needed a change from New York and wanted to be closer to his parents in Baraboo. Offered a job teaching tap at the Bravo Center in Baraboo, he first resisted. “I felt that teaching would mean the end of my dance career, but it really hasn’t done that. It has fueled my creative side.”
Etzweiler teaches mostly students of high school age, though the Bravo Center trains people of all ages. And while most of his students aren’t planning to be professional dancers, a few do plan to pursue musical theatre.
“The reason that we offer classes is to give people a taste of what it is like to be in the dance world,” he said. “And to teach technique.”
Etzweiler said that he enjoys working with children because to teach them dance he has to make it fun, to come to it at their level. “Theatre and dance is what I love. I can pass it on,” he said.
Baraboo is a city of about 12,000, home to the Circus World Museum, and the former headquarters and winter home of the Ringling Brothers, so there should certainly be a culture of performance there. But Etzweiler said he sometimes wonders if leaving the opportunities of New York was the best choice for him; sometimes he misses the big city scene. He still takes classes as time permits, and trains as much as he can. He’s even choreographing and dancing in the local theatre guild’s production of “Little Women.”
“You have to start somewhere, and the small studios give that,” Etzweiler advises. “If you want to pursue professional dance you have to go eventually to a big city, where there’s a larger pool and better training. That’s where the auditions are and the jobs are.”
Ali Grossman of Laramie, Wyoming is another dancer and teacher who, after working in larger cities, now finds herself looking for ways to practice her art form. Laramie is a college town of about 27,000 people with an active college theatre and dance department. Thus, “The Nutcracker” has been spoken for. But Grossman has been able to teach at a local dance center independent of the university.
From birth, she had had problems with her hips and even spent some time in hip splints. “My mom thought dance would be a good way to strengthen my hips,” Grossman says. “It turned out not to be really a great idea. I didn’t like it first few years, but then I started to like it.” Growing up near Indianapolis, Grossman had lots of opportunities for training and and exposure to many forms of dance.
She eventually wound up in Laramie, the smallest place she’d ever lived, because of her husband’s job.
“When I moved to Laramie there were no opportunities for dancers at all, outside of the University of Wyoming.” Initially, she offered classes on the slippery floors of a local exercise studio and has since joined the teaching staff of an established dance center.
She explained that in towns where there’s been some history of dance instruction, adults tend to enroll in classes to recapture some of the fun and intensity of training, after many years away from it. Thus Grossman finds many of her students. She’s teaching adult jazz and ballet: in both classes students range in age from 13 to 62. In pursuit of her other passion, she is also a producer/director with UW Television and a freelance videographer.
Although Laramie is a small town, Grossman thinks students here and in other more rural communities have wonderful opportunities to train in dance and to learn about the dance world. “It is all in the teaching,” Grossman said. “There are incredible instructors everywhere. You never know why people end up where they end up.” Or where a Sugar Plum Fairy may appear.