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Dancers excited to return to the stage in this year's 'The Nutcracker'

'The Nutcracker' is the first in-person performance for the Colorado Conservatory of Dance since the pandemic began.

For Austin Price, a 19-year-old dancer at the Colorado Conservatory of Dance, this season’s live performance of "The Nutcracker" means more than returning to the stage. It means an official return to what she loves most: dancing.

During the pandemic, Price and other students of CCD adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by turning to a virtual platform. These students tried to stay engaged with teachers online and were often found dancing in cramped spaces and using furniture to assist in exercises and moves.

“Dancing on the carpet in a six-foot by six-foot space while using a bookshelf as a barre and trying to make corrections through a screen is exhausting. Dancing while trying not to hit the ceiling fan with my arms or kick the wall with my legs is quite a challenge,” she said.

“It was also hard at times for me to focus during class with the rest of my family being stuck inside with me and with pets wandering around as I was trying to dance. Needless to say, the day we returned to the studio was fantastic,” Price continued. 

Price felt “zoomed out” often during the quarantine but found a positive light to focus on. Just as the pandemic hit, Price said she felt as though she was beginning to find herself as a dancer. While cut off from the stage and dancing with peers, Price spent hours dancing alone in her bedroom exploring “new ways of moving” and developing a “better approach toward dancing,” she said. 

But no matter how hard she worked or made accommodations, she realized just how much she missed performing live on stage.

The experience was hard on Price’s fellow dancers as well. Abbey Sterling, now 14 years old, began dancing when she was 3 years old. 

“My experience was both good and bad. I really disliked dancing at home because I had a tiny little dancing space that I could use and I feel like I couldn’t really express myself through a camera as much as I could have in-person. But also through this I feel like I strengthened my technique since I could only do so much,” Sterling said. 

Brianna Baye had similar frustrations. She remained at home, rarely venturing out of her house. 

“At times during the pandemic dance didn’t give me the same joy I would feel when I was in person, but I realized that it wasn’t just dancing that I was losing interest in, it was a lot of other things that I love doing,” Baye said 

“I think that was because I was stuck inside for an entire year and couldn’t go out to see my friends and other people other than my family. I started doing mental health exercises to get myself more motivated to continue my activities throughout the pandemic,” she added. 

Watching “The Nutcracker” has become a holiday tradition for many families, said Rachel Long, communications director of CCD. Baye said she fell in love with the performance at a young age and begged her mother to let her audition for a part. In 2016, her mother gave the green light and Baye has danced in the production for five years now.

This year, the dance group is excited to be able to perform it live. This performance is not only a holiday tradition but marks the return to the stage for CCD dancers for the first time since February 2020 after a performance of The Ugly Duckling. 

Students from the CCD were allowed to audition for a spot in “The Nutcracker.” With over 150 hours of training and rehearsals, the students are ready to take the stage with slight tweaks to the show to keep it entertaining for those who see the show each year, Long said. 

“What I love most about performing in ‘The Nutcracker’ is seeing so many families build their holiday seasons around the beloved tradition. I also love the fact that I get to do what I love most with the people I love most. I have met some of my closest friends and greatest mentors at CCD and I would not trade those relationships for anything,” Price said. 

“I love the friendships I get out of being backstage with everyone and I love making people smile, especially now with everything going on it is good to know that I made an impact on someone’s life even if it’s small,” Baye said.

The dancers are not the only ones who get to perform. After the show, dancers and Artistic Director Julia Wilkinson Manley will return to the stage to teach audience members a few dance moves. 

“We usually teach the audience how to do the BonBon Dance,” Long said. “It’s fun for them (audience members) to get up and move about.” 

For the sensory-friendly performance on Friday, guests are able to express themselves however they choose. This could mean dancing in the aisles, laughing long and loud or approaching the stage to feel the vibrations of the music and the dancers. 

“It’s a no-shush environment,” Long said.  

Like many event venues, the CCD is adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols. They ask that patrons 12-years-old or older provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the show’s start time. Masks should be worn during the performance and while in the building. 

This year’s performance of “The Nutcracker” opened Friday but still has open seats for the Dec. 17 sensory-friendly performance, the two performances on Dec. 18 and the final performance on Dec. 19. Tickets range from $29 to $49 for all performances except the sensory-friendly performance. Guests of honor, otherwise known as those who are neurodiverse, are admitted free, while those who accompany them pay only $10. “The Nutcracker” is being performed at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W. 84th Ave. in Denver.

Correction: The sensory-friendly show is on Friday, Dec. 17. It was originally reported to be on Dec. 18.