Two weeks before opening day, children ages 4 through 6 march inside Central Mississippi Dance in Brandon, Miss., carrying golden horns and white replica rifles while Eminem’s “Like Toy Soldiers” blasts through the studio’s speakers.
Afterward, the music transitions into an upbeat, hip-hop instrumental, and three dancers playing mice follow along to dance instructor Tena Long’s movements as she illustrates how to perform the Milly Rock, a two-step dance where the performer swoops their arms left and right that originated in New York City.
One young girl, who is playing a soldier, taps away at the floor, the sounds her shoes make enamoring her as she waits for further direction.
This year, Central Mississippi Dance adds an urban twist to a classic show by infusing various styles of dance—ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz, contemporary and acrobatic—into a production of “The Nutcracker,” a recital that has been months in the making.
“We really just wanted to incorporate and bring a different unique style onto ‘The Nutcracker’ because when people hear the ‘Nutcracker’ story, all they hear is point and classical ballet or classical music,” Central Mississippi Dance Instructor Faith Grier says. “Ms. Reagan really wanted to bring out a different side of it because she was like, ‘There are so many genres of dance that people just don’t incorporate sometimes.’”
Grier, who herself has been dancing since she was 3 years old, now teaches dance to children between the ages of 2 and 6. She says she loves watching the kids’ faces light up when they learn a new step.
“I always believed dance is the perfect way to express anything you’re going through at any point in time in life,” Grier says. “And with preschool, they’re jumping for joy. They’re excited to learn. And then they rush home and they’re like, ‘Mom, look what I did. Look at what I learned today in dance!’”
Madysen Loper, 6, dressed in a black leotard, tights and ballet shoes, plays one of the mice. Lawanda Gray, her mother, explains that her daughter started dancing before she could walk and that the child has always wanted to be a ballerina.
“This is her first time participating in ballet,” Gray says. “She was interested in trying out for the Nutcracker, so I let her audition, and she became part of the street rats.”
Feeling that Madysen was ready to learn choreography, Gray let her daughter audition for the recital back in August. Though Madysen’s love lies with ballet and tap dance, she has been presented with a new challenge in having to learn hip-hop dance, her mother says.
“I’m excited that she likes it because I want her to be in something that she wants to do and not what I want her to do,” Gray says. “She has been enjoying it ever since she started.”
‘I’m Here for You’
Planning for the recital dates back to this summer, when Central Mississippi Dance Director Reagan Cooper and instructors got together to discuss the December performance in detail. They formed a consensus to incorporate multiple genres of dance, a principle the studio is based upon.
“We offer everything from mommy-(and)-me classes with babies up through adult hip-hop and tap,” Cooper says. “Our strong point is classical ballet. So we just mix all that together, and we pull the parts that we thought really would shine.”
The studio employs 12 instructors, with each one having their own speciality and niche. Cooper says she tried to place the instructors within their preferred discipline and let them have free range.
“With hip-hop, the mice, we really couldn’t see them being anything but hip-hoppers,” the director says. “Roger and Tena (dance instructors) are fantastic. We gave them the opportunity to mix their music, (adding) some of the classical pieces of music from Nutcracker (with) ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot.’”
The studio held auditions for the recital in August, allowing participants to pick their three favorite dance styles and audition in all of them. From there, instructors selected dancers for different parts they felt would best fit them. In total, the ensemble has about 85 dancers from neighboring cities like Brandon, Madison and the Jackson area.
“These are all local kiddos in our area, and that’s really cool,” Cooper says. “I mean, that says a lot. There’s a lot of talent right here in our state, so I think that’s really neat. I was telling (Nora and Trey) last night: ‘Y’all are pretty special because y’all are local and there’s so much local talent.’”
Instructor Faith Grier says seeing the kids form friendships and grow closer to one another has been a beautiful experience, regardless of whether they attend different schools or live in different cities. The older kids have been helping each other during rehearsals and built stronger relationships through the process, too, she notes.
“There are times where some kids get overwhelmed, but that’s when us as teachers come in and say, ‘It’s gonna be OK. We got you. We’re right here with you,’” Grier says. “And that’s also when their friends come in, and they hug one another and say, ‘I’m here for you.’”
‘An Opportunity to Shine’
Sitting with a laptop resting on her knees, rehearsal instructor Leslie Johnson goes over solo performances with Nora Robertson, who plays the sugar plum fairy, and Tre Hunt, who plays the Cavalier and Nutcracker.
Once Johnson initiates a classical music track, Robertson and Hunt step to the middle of the floor and bow to each other. Robertson lifts one leg, bending it at an angle so that she is standing on one foot. Though she feels pain from having practiced for five hours the day before, she does not let it show on her face. Hunt turns her in a full circle with his arm serving as leverage and support. They move fluidly and take their time while Johnson instructs them.
Hunt is a student at Hinds Community College, while Robertson attends Germantown High School. Hunt’s strong dance background has made it very easy for others like Robertson to work with him, Cooper says.
“Nora really has it in her mind now that ‘He’s got me wherever I am,’ and she feels safe,” Cooper says of the duo.
Leslie Johnson has had a hand in everything from editing music to blocking transition scenes and choreographing dances, including Robertson and Hunt’s performances.
“(Nora Robertson) is such a sweet person, and I really have enjoyed working with her,” Johnson says. “Tre, I’ve known for almost a decade now. I actually taught him at Hinds Community College. He’s such a sweet young man. He really is so talented.”
Cooper hopes that the audience realizes that ‘The Nutcracker’ can be expressed in more ways than just classical ballet and that those interested do not have to be a student or have dance experience to participate, as the show uses dances of all ages and experience levels.
“Some children may go to ‘The Nutcracker’ and really wanna participate, but they’re not a ballerina or they’re more of a hip-hop dancer. … So I think that’s really cool for the audience and the kids as well to be showcased and have an opportunity to shine in something that they’re good at,” Cooper says.
Central Mississippi Dance’s “The Nutcracker” will take place on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Cain-Cochran Hall at Hinds Community College campus (501 E. Main St.) in Raymond at 5 pm. Buy tickets here. To learn more about the dance studio, visit centralmsdance.com.