Visions of Sugar Plums: Using a Nutcracker Workshop to Teach About Ballet

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Most people might be reaching for their Pumpkin Spice Lattes right about now, but dancers know that it’s already Nutcracker time! Love it or hate it, the seasonal favorite is here again, with tiny tots and professional dancers alike heading into the rehearsal studio to perfect their performances as party guests, snowflakes, candy canes, and the like.

The Nutcracker remains an essential part of American culture each December, even as ballet audiences may be dwindling at other times of the year. Hundreds of future dancers are inspired each year to step into ballet classes after being enchanted by the Sugar Plum Fairy or Nutcracker Cavalier. But for other audience members old and young alike, The Nutcracker is their only exposure to classical ballet.

While this might make dance professionals cringe, we can also see it as an opportunity. Hosting a Nutcracker Workshop at your studio is one great way that you can use the public’s love affair with this holiday classic to help educate students about the art of classical ballet and hopefully inspire them to study it further. Here are some reasons why Nutcracker Workshops work to inspire your current students and even draw in new dancers:

  1. Brand Recognition: People know and love the Nutcracker, and might be more incentivized to attend an educational event based on the familiar theme than a generic ballet workshop. These events can be a great way to introduce your most ballet-phobic students to ballet, and opening them to the public can be a good way to reach new families.
  2. Holiday Indulgence: The holidays, in general, are a time of indulgence and extravagance. Parents and grandparents are often looking for fun themed activities for their children, and might even be more inclined to spend a little bit extra for a truly special experience.
  3. Fun for All Ages: Whether you are planning an afternoon event or a week-long extravaganza, it is easy to adapt a Nutcracker Workshop for any age group. With just a little adaptation to the curriculum, you can offer a great program for your whole studio or community!

There are many ways you can approach a Nutcracker Workshop, depending on the culture of your studio, the needs of your students, and the expectations of your families. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Studio Culture: How often are your students at the studio already? Are they busy with rehearsals for holiday performances of their own? If you are a busy studio with lots going on, offering the Workshop as a fun event on a Friday night might provide a nice respite from an intense rehearsal schedule. If you are trying to grow a culture of rigorous training, a Nutcracker themed winter break intensive with classes, rehearsals, and coaching sessions culminating in a mini performance might be just the right fit. If you offer a more recreational environment, try a Saturday afternoon event complete with a tea party and visit from the Sugar Plum Fairy in addition to the dance class.
  2. Student Needs: How familiar are your students with classical ballet? If they are certified “bunheads” already, then learning some challenging variations or pas de duex work from a local professional dancer or a regional company director might be appropriate. If they are newer to ballet or dance in general, then consider using the workshop to introduce students to the elements of classical ballet such as dance vocabulary, storytelling, costumes and sets, and music. If you anticipate mixed age groups and levels of experience, focusing on performance quality, characterization, and mime can be both accessible for the novices and a challenging change of pace for the more advanced dancers.
  3. Family Expectations: Do your studio families expect all-out magic at special events, or do they prefer something a little more low-key? If you plan to open the event up to the public, what is the economic climate in your local area; that is, how much can you reasonably charge – and what can you afford to offer for that price? Would your event face a lot of competition from other local holiday fare? Reflecting on each of these questions will help you determine the kind of event to hold, the length and schedule of your program, and how much you can charge.

Once you’ve taken some time to think about the factors above, start developing a strategy for your event. A few suggestions to get you started:

  • Decide if you’re hosting a single or multi-day workshop, how long each session will be, whether it will consist of just a dance class or a class along with other activities.
  • Determine if you will target a certain age group, have separate programs for different age groups and levels, or have mixed ages and levels dancing together.
  • Figure out how much staff you will need, whether your current staff has the resources they need to successfully conduct such a workshop, or if you want to hire a guest teacher for the day.
  • Set a budget for the event, taking into account staff pay, any props or costume pieces you’d like to supply, resources needed for crafts, games, or activities, outside vendors such as actors to portray characters from the ballet (you can also use your advanced students!), any food or drink you want to provide, and marketing.
  • Begin an aggressive marketing strategy to get the word out several weeks in advance:
    • Social Media – Be sure to boost or promote posts to reach new audiences in your local area if you plan to open the event to the public.
    • Studio Newsletters, Handouts, and Postcards – Consider offering a discount if a current student brings a friend who is not currently enrolled.
    • Studio Website or Blog – You can tease the event with a short video clip, a brief history of the ballet, or a schedule of all the fun things students will experience.
    • Community Calendars, Parenting Blogs, and Neighborhood Newsletters – If you plan to open the event to public, take advantage of all local forums for getting the word out! Be sure you have a dynamic, themed photo and snappy description of the workshop to entice new students!
    • Local Press – Draft up a press release and send to contacts at local community newspapers.
    • Partnerships – Reach out to regional or touring companies that will be performing the ballet in your area and see if they would be open to cross-promotion, discounts, or other partnership opportunities.

After the administrative work is complete, it’s time for the fun part – Lesson Planning! Whether you plan to teach the workshop yourself, have a faculty member teach or co-teach, or bring in a guest teacher, you will need a good lesson plan to help the dance portion of the event go smoothly and meet the needs of your students. I recommend an hour long dance session for students 3-6, 90 minutes for students 7-11, and 2 hours or more for older students, depending on their level of experience and interest. For all students, I recommend the following:

1.) A fun, dynamic warm-up that fits the theme. In most cases, a full barre wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate. Consider using an upbeat version of the music and working in some cardio, asking students to improvise along with the feeling of the music or a particular character, or playing dance games incorporating full-bodied warm-up movement such as “Sugar Plum Says…”

2.) Progressions or center work that introduce movement from the choreography in a lower-stakes way. Simple progressions or combinations that include elements of the choreography can help students master the movement without the pressure of memorizing the full choreography and timing.

3.) Activities to work on performance quality, expression, and story-telling.

  • Use improvisation to help students explore movement quality relevant to the characters they are portraying. For example, how does a snowflake move through the sky during a flurry, or a blizzard? Use props, such as cotton pieces, scarves, tissue paper “snowflakes”, etc, to demonstrate the qualities such as lightness, speed, and softness. Have the students describe the qualities in words, show with individual body parts, and use their full body moving in space improvisationally. Then, ask them to incorporate those same feelings during appropriate parts of the choreography.
  • Introduce miming, including the different gestures and postures used in classical ballet mime. Students can even make up their own phrases to mime and perform them for one another, with the audience having to “guess” the translation. Explain the importance of mime in classical ballet as a way for the dancer to communicate the story to the audience without the use of words. Depending on the age, level, and interest of your students, you can go back in ballet history and look at roots of ballet as an interlude in operas and talk about role of mime in Jean-Georges Noverre’s theory of ballet d’action.
  • Incorporate elements of acting, including facial expression, staging and blocking, and story-telling. This might be a fun opportunity to collaborate with a local theatre teacher or director to introduce students to the theatrical aspects of dance performance.

4.) Choreography time! Choose a selection from the ballet that is appropriate for your dancers. If you are not requiring pre-registration, be prepared for both male and female dancers as well as dancers of mixed ages and levels. No matter what role you are teaching, you can teach the traditional choreography, make adaptations to the original, or choreograph your own version that meets the skill level of your students. Some ideas:

  • Age 3-6
    • Lullaby section from the party scene – Bonus points if you encourage dancers to bring their own dolls or make a cute little teddy bear during the craft time to use while dancing!
    • Soldiers/Mice from the battle scene – Be warned that this can be scary for the youngest dancers, and sometimes involves a LOT of staging which can get confusing!
    • Polichinelles/Clowns/Mother Ginger’s Children – This is a particularly fun, energetic section, and it can be a little easier to teach as it is a stand-alone section and not part of a larger scene.
  • Age 7-11
    • Ballerina/Soldier Dolls from the party scene – These are fun for improvisation as well as challenging students’ technique!
    • Chinese Variation/Tea – Note, for all variations routed in a particular culture, consider ways to adapt the choreography so it doesn’t rely too much on cultural stereotypes (pointed fingers, etc.).
    • Russian Variation/Candy Canes – This is a fun one for high-energy students or students who have tumbling experience.
  • Age 12+, Advanced Students
    • Waltz of the Snowflakes or Flowers – These are great for introducing movement quality, working as an ensemble, and picking up large sections of choreography quickly. Advanced students can work on pointe, while intermediate students can remain in slippers.
    • Spanish or Arabian Variations – These are more mature divertissements, requiring stylistic movement, intricate timing, and expression.
    • Sugar Plum Fairy Pas de Deux or Variation – This is a great opportunity to work on partnering skills or advanced technique by tackling the most advanced choreography from the ballet.

Some other fun activities you might want to include:

  • Story-telling: Read the story of the ballet with selections of the movement playing softly in the background. After the reading, ask students to tell you about their favorite parts or characters, or make a pose or shape inspired by what they heard. You can also re-tell a simplified version of the story, inviting students to improvise along with you as they act out the plot using dance movement.
  • Video or In-Studio Performance: Show some video clips of the ballet as you describe the plot, and highlight how the dancers are using their bodies to communicate the story. If you prefer a live performance, have your older students perform some of selections from the ballet or invite college students or a regional company to give an in-studio performance.
  • Nutcracker Tea: Host a tea party before or after the dance class. Contract a local actor to come visit as a character from the ballet, or invite your older students to do so! Plan simple, Nutcracker related sweets along with lemonade and tea.
  • Arts & Crafts: Make simple crafts that can be used as props or headpieces while dancing. These can be fun take-aways and create excellent photos opportunities!

Most importantly – remember the follow-up! You’ve engaged these students enough to participate in the workshop, now help develop their love for ballet even further. Have the students perform what they’ve learned for their families and present each with a flower during their bows to create a lasting sense of pride and accomplishment. Ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned and what they think of ballet after attending the workshop. Offer a coupon for discounted registration in your weekly ballet classes. Organize a field trip to see a local or touring ballet company perform – many will offer group discounts, backstage tours, or meet and greets with the dancers. Plan a follow-up workshop for the spring that focuses on a lesser-known ballet such as Sleeping Beauty or Coppelia, and provide each attendee with a flier and coupon to attend. Make sure new dancers are added to your mailing list and that you follow up with an email, card, or phone call to thank them for attending and encourage them to return for a trial class or another workshop.  

Have you tried a Nutcracker Workshop at your studio? What did you find most successful, or most challenging? Share your story in the comments below!

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