Where Rural Flowers Waltz
[imgbelt img=prarirenut530.jpg]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.”
[imgcontainer left] [img:orangeburgdancers320.jpg] [source]Christopher Huff/The Times and Democrat
Emily Thompson (left) as Tweedle Dee and Samantha Carr, playing Tweedle Dum, perform in the Orangeburg Civic Ballet’s production of “Alice in Wonderland”
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.
[imgcontainer left] [img:blackburn150.jpg] [source]Source text hereTamalyn Blackman founded the Orangeburg Civic Ballet and operates her own dance studio. She says that dancers tend to be less competitive and more like “family” in a smaller city.