Only a few weeks until showtime, the main room at Charlotte Blume School of Dance is packed and abuzz with energy. More than forty dancers stand, in fifth position, the floor a mixture of soft and pointe shoes, legs extended, and arms outstretched with delicate fingers pointing toward the ceiling.
The room is small but warm, a far cry from the thirty-degree weather outside. Upon each call from one of their instructors David Alan Cook, the dancers shifted positions in unison — a dance so precise it looks as if they are pulled by strings. Along the walls of the room are nutcrackers, candy canes, tin solider hats and pictures of Christmas lore — all relics of Clara’s fantastical dream, and fifty-one years of tradition. In the back sits the head of the mouse king, crown and all, awaiting his on-stage debut.
At Charlotte Blume School of Dance and throughout Fayetteville, it’s time for “The Nutcracker.”
Just beyond the dancers plays a video of Pepta's “The Nutcracker.” The dancers strive for precision. They match their movements against Pepta's dancers. In the studio, the only sound that can be heard is the soft, shallow pattering of feet on laminate floor. The dancers lightly glide to the tape on the floor that marks particular fractions of the stage. Their bodies remain angled out toward the audience. They check their position, readjust and do it again and again. This will continue dozens of times.
“We’ll run the same two minutes for an hour to get it right,” Dina Lewis, the school’s executive director, says as she watches her dancers’ arms and feet. Lewis says they’ll tell the girls to pretend they are holding pennies between their knees for their bourrée.
“We say it because quarters are too big.”
Technique, according to Lewis, is why students come to this dance group.
The music stops, and just like that, the current dancers run “off stage” and others run on to take their place.
“Dancers, you have to pay attention while you are working on the stage,” Cook says, his shoulders held back and feet held in position. Like an orchestra leader, he brings his attention to different areas of the room, tightening the dance and congratulating dancers on their hard work. In the other corner, Emalee Smith, another instructor, is perfecting the dance of some of the older dancers.
The dream continues.
In many ways, so does the dream of Charlotte Blume. Blume passed away in 2016. “The Nutcracker Ballet” is a legacy of sorts for the North Carolina State Ballet and for Charlotte Blume School of Dance. Blume started “The Nutcracker” in 1959 and it has run every year since, with the exception of last year. It is a legacy that is now kept alive by Lewis, the executive director for the school and the President of North Carolina State Ballet.
Lewis talks of Blume fondly and reverently like a maternal figure whose ghost is welcomed to haunt the school. Each part of this play, for Lewis and other dancers who knew Blume well, keeps her alive.
“Each set has a piece of her in it … we have pieces of her that we make sure is [on] that stage.”
In 2020, like much of the world, this version of “The Nutcracker” did not go on.
“We sat home last year watching 'Nutcracker' on TV like everyone else did,” Lewis said.
But in December 2020, around Lewis’s birthday, she received a card from a little girl who played a mouse in “The Nutcracker” just the year before. The note, which wished Lewis a happy birthday, also said, “all I want for Christmas is for "Nutcracker" to come back.”
When February came around, Lewis said the company was short of funding for the play due to all the closures during COVID-19. She and the board decided that regardless of the funds, 2021 needed
“The Nutcracker.” The community needed “The Nutcracker.”
“There’s a little mouse that we all need to thank … one I just couldn’t say no to.”
The little girl's note is now posted on Lewis’s mirror at home. The little girl has since moved with her family due to the military. Lewis says a lot of what she learned and embodies now comes from Charlotte Blume. It’s all about giving back, she says. While a mouse helped her bring back the beloved play, Blume has always been at the heart of it.
“You just feel like you owe it to Charlotte to continue this.”
Charlotte Blume School of Dance will hit the stages Dec. 11 at the Crown Theatre. There are 69 dancers in this year's production, from ages 5 and up. Each year, Lewis says, the choreography changes slightly to keep students and the audience engaged. This year, she tried to keep unification at the center of the play.
At the end of the day, Lewis sits back and looks at the pictures of “her kids,” handwritten notes from students and pictures of Charlotte and smiles when she speaks about this year’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“When the picture comes together … [it’s] magical. It’s the coolest thing. I get chills thinking about it. I think Charlotte is going to be proud of us. She’s going to be pretty happy.”
Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for military and $10 kids ages 3-16. Kids under 2 are free.
Across town, in the top portion of Countryside Gymnastics is Leslie’s Dance Academy. Leslie Dumas, owner and executive director, sits among plastic storage containers of all shapes and sizes that house different costumes and props for her production of “The Nutcracker.” She sits, waiting on dancers to arrive. Her dancers, too, are preparing to go on stage and perform “The Nutcracker.”
Dumas has been running this version of “The Nutcracker” since 2000 when she took it over from Ann Clark, who owned another studio in town. Both Clark and Dumas trained with Charlotte Blume. Dumas trained with Charlotte Blume from a young age until 18.
For “The Nutcracker,” she collaborates with other studios in town, through The Dance Theatre of Fayetteville, to bring all their dancers together to perform the play. Last year, much like Charlotte Blume School of Dance, her company didn’t perform “The Nutcracker.”
This year, Dumas wasn’t told they could have their traditional stage at Methodist University until the end of September. This gave Dumas and the other studios two months to prepare the show.
She said this year they’ve had to make some changes in how they traditionally run it due to all the changes from COVID-19.
“We didn’t do an audition. I usually do most of the choreography, but I let other studios pick what they want to choreograph.”
On Nov. 21, the collective group had their second full group rehearsal, just a week and a half before the performance. For Dumas and others, this is about the collective and anyone who wants to be a part of the play can “come in.”
“It’s supposed to be fun.” Dumas relates the overall experience to the fun and chaos of the party scene at the beginning of the play.
As she talks, young dancers arrive and come to greet her. She smiles, asks about something personal to each and then they run off to get into dance clothes.
Dumas is set on getting the show to stage and bringing the dancers together.
“It’s going to be what it is after a COVID year of nothing,” Dumas says. “Everyone has to understand that perspective. The world stopped in March of last year. There was no dance, no gym, no nothing.”
The Dance Theatre of Fayetteville will perform the Nutcracker December 3-5 at Methodist’s University’s Huff Concert Hall. Tickets will be $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Kids ages 5-17 will be $5 and kids ages 4 and under will be free.