The word ballerina evokes a mental image of tutus, leotards, dancers’ limbs elongated in elegant poses and toes tapping precisely on pointe.
In famous ballets like “The Nutcracker,” ballerinas are known to make complicated feats of agility, ambition and strength look effortless.
Dancers who tie on their pink satin pointe shoes and don intricate costumes to dance in such famed performances are those who have worked countless hours over several years in order to earn the privilege.
Tessa Sherman and Skyylynn Lippo are two such dancers who will perform in Whidbey Island Dance Theater’s “The Nutcracker.”
The two ballerinas, both members of the Whidbey Island Dance Theater company, are dancing significantly different parts. Tessa will dance as main character Clara, while Skyylynn will dance a handful of roles: the girl cousin, a fairy, a snowflake, a flower and a swallowtail. But each of the young women have dedicated themselves to the art form, dedication which has not gone unnoticed by their instructors.
Both Sherman, age 12, and Lippo, age 14, have danced since they were about 5 years old. Each has progressed through the ranks at Whidbey Island Dance Theater, attending classes and rehearsals six days a week. Classes usually last about three hours while rehearsals typically run six to seven hours. All the while, the dancers must maintain a high level of physical and mental energy regardless of aching feet or tired muscles.
For Sherman, being cast as Clara is truly a dream come true. Having watched her elders dance the coveted role since she first began performing in “The Nutcracker” about seven years ago — dancing as a bumble bee and baby mouse — she had set her sights on one day wearing the beautiful dresses, donning the crown and mastering the demanding choreography.
“I was really excited because it was something I really wanted. I was home sick when I saw it [the cast list] and I ran around screaming ‘I’m Clara!’ ” Sherman recalled with a grin.
Sherman said she appreciates the ways in which ballet has increased the control she has over her movements and body. Though, she confessed, the grace she exhibits in ballet doesn’t always translate to her everyday life. “I’m actually really clumsy,” she laughed.
Sherman and Lippo, like most dancers at Whidbey Island Dance Theater, both began on pointe at around age 12.
According to Danielle Wilkins, assistant artistic director, students usually start using pointe shoes between the ages of 11 and 13. Wilkins explained that this is the age when dancers’ feet have developed enough to consist of more bone than cartilage. But more than just a physical maturity, dancers must also be emotionally ready for the hard work and pain which may be greater than expected.
Before starting on pointe shoes two years ago, Sherman’s mother took her to see a podiatrist who advised her of the possible risks associated with dance and, more specifically, the use of pointe shoes. For many professional dancers, years on pointe can mean countless bunions, blisters and bruises. But for Sherman and Lippo, like most ballerinas, the risks are worthwhile.
“It’s standing taller than everyone, going ‘Oh I’m a pretty ballerina now,’” said Sherman with a smile, explaining that dancing on pointe is quite a bit of fun.
Backstage during rehearsals, several ballerinas applied toe caps, toe tape and New Skin Liquid Bandage to their feet prior to slipping on the satin pointe shoes. Some dancers also stuff the shoes with lamb’s wool or other inserts for increased comfort. Each of the young women bend the shoes prior to use in order to break them in.
“It didn’t hurt as much the first time but now it hurts because you start to get lots of blisters on your feet,” Lippo explained.
Sherman said she has yet to endure any injuries other than the occasional blister. Lippo, however, said she has had quite a few blisters thus far in addition to a handful of injuries including a sprained ankle which she got after a fall in class, though her injuries don’t typically keep her off pointe for more than a few days.
Lippo, who initially took up ballet in emulation of her sister, a former dancer herself, noted that technique is likely the most difficult part of the art form due in part to the necessity for dancers to stretch their bodies in compliance with the elegant and streamlined choreography.
“Snow [scene] is really hard because it is really fast; you don’t get a break. And you have to keep your energy up,” she said.
Water, protein bars and a strong sense of teamwork and support are essentials, according to Lippo.
“We work really well together,” she said.
Lippo and Sherman say they have ambitions to play additional challenging “Nutcracker” roles such as the Rat King and Snow Queen in the future.
“The Rat King does a lot of jumps, and I like to jump a lot,” Lippo said with a smile. “The Snow Queen is different, I’ve never seen anything like the role of the Snow Queen.”
Both girls said they are unsure if they’ll pursue professional dance careers after high school; but for now, they are committed to the craft.
“It’s a sacrifice. You want to be here, it’s not like you have to be here,” Lippo said. “Most of my friends do sports after school, I come here.”
Whidbey Island Dance Theater’s “The Nutcracker” will be held at South Whidbey HS Performing Arts Center.
SHOW TIMES: Performances are held at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12, Dec. 13, Dec. 19 and Dec. 20; at 2 p.m. Dec. 13, Dec. 14, Dec. 20 and Dec. 21.
Cost is $18, general admission; $16, seniors, military and children under 17; and $20 at the door.
A character brunch is 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14.
Cost for the brunch is: $15 for adults, $10 for youths 12 and under.
To purchase tickets and find more information regarding discounts and specially priced nights, visit brownpapertickets.com.