Tiny tot angels, visions in white, whirl across the stage. Little girl sugar plums twirl in circles, grinning as they pirouette in perfect sync with the music. Candy canes leap, colorful flowers spin and sway and Chinese acrobats flip through the air.
Such are the dreams of a little girl named Clara in the classic holiday production of The Nutcracker as performed every December by a cast of 300 dancers under the direction of Felicia Rhoden.
Rhoden and her teachers choreograph every number of the show held at The Lazzara Performance Hall at the University of North Florida. Cast members range from age three to in their nineties. All the proceeds go to children’s charities: Amistad Orphanage in Bolivia, Dreams Come True and Community Hospice of Northeast Florida’s children’s services.
This year’s December 14 performance is Rhoden’s 18th annual and she and her dancers have been working for months to get ready. Rehearsals started in August. The extravaganza that raises over $20,000 a year is her passion and a calling.
Even though, after a life of dancing and teaching dance, she moved to Ponte Vedra Beach 18 years ago to retire.
“God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m not through with you,’” Rhoden said. “So I started a little Nutcracker. And the little Nutcracker grew into a big Nutcracker.”
The performance is a dance ministry for Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, where Rhoden and her instructors teach classes in classical ballet, lyrical, jazz, tap and acrobatics. The first Nutcracker featured 17 young dancers, performed before a small audience in the church’s Parish Hall. It grew quickly and year after year moved to bigger stages – to Palms Presbyterian Church to Fletcher High School and then to UNF. Most of the cast are children and teens including about 40 boys. Some adults dance in the opening party scene, where Clara receives a toy nutcracker as a Christmas gift. The ballet is based on the story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” by E.T.A. Hoffman; the music composed by Peter Tchaikovsky. It’s a holiday tradition for dance companies around the world and Rhoden calls her version “family friendly.”
There are many dance numbers with elaborate costumes and all of her students are in it. Many of the adults are parents and grandparents and some of them can be “funny,” Rhoden said. The fees for her classes are modest and students who can’t afford them attend on scholarship.
The dancers realize this is a charity and “they are into giving and loving” the children they are dancing for, said Rhoden, who started dancing at age four and who studied with George Balanchine, Martha Graham and other famous names in New York City.
She traveled the country as a dancer before moving to Atlanta to teach. Now she said she’s delighted to be using her skills and talent to help others. “It’s a blessing to raise money to give to children in need.”