Several young ballet dancers have visions of sugar plums dancing through their heads as soon as they slip on their first tutu or pair of tights.
“The Nutcracker” is synonymous with ballet and Christmastime. It’s estimated that across the country, major ballet companies draw about 40 percent of their yearly ticket revenues from performances of the “The Nutcracker” alone.
The Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh, located in Castle Shannon, has put on the annual waltzing extravaganza for more than a dozen years. Husband and wife duo Steven and Lindsay Piper opened the studio in 2006.
“Two things: we love kids and we love ballet, and we’re definitely more artistic people. We have a hard time thinking of sitting in an office all day long. This is obviously a busy job. We work seven days a week a lot of the time, but it allows a lot more freedom and fun, to be with the kids,” Lindsay says.
Their local roots have been strong from the very beginning, as Lindsay is originally from South Park and grew up dancing.
“I’m from Pittsburgh and we both danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater before we opened Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh. We danced, we taught and that’s where we’re still going with it. We’ve always been doing this, for about 20 years, because we taught around Pittsburgh before we opened up our own school,” Lindsay says.
“That’s what we knew best,” Steven says of their decision to open their own school. “We both danced professionally.”
A tradition early in the making, the two can recall their own performances in “The Nutcracker” before tackling the show as instructors, both dancing since they were young. In fact, the quintessential adventure is what originally drew Steven to dance.
“I actually started dancing because of ‘The Nutcracker.’ My older sister and younger brother were in their ‘Nutcracker,’ and they always need boys. At first, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’ But the next year, I saw how much fun my brother had so I decided to do it and I loved it. So, I started classes in January following that ‘Nutcracker.’ That was back in, gosh, 1986. A long time ago.”
Dancers as young as 3 take the stage in the annual show alongside teens about to enter their professional dancing careers, and it’s a chance to get them comfortable with performing publicly.
“It’s a great way to get kids on stage,” Lindsay says. “You have some leeway about creating parts for children.”
Of course, it’s during the holiday season as temperatures begin to drop and families pull closer together. Kids and their families alike look forward to the performance year after year, folding watching the show into their annual traditions.
“It’s something that the whole family enjoys. They really support us. They buy a lot of tickets. They tell their friends and neighbors. It’s been really great. It keeps growing every year,” Lindsay says.
About 220 kids, all from the South Hills and surrounding area, are set to take the stage this season. It’s evolved to incorporate more dancers. The couple began with just the second act of the ballet.
“At first, it seemed like such a huge undertaking to do a two-hour ballet with all these little kids, so we kind of started small,” Lindsay says.
Each year, they would add parts or an additional scene. Now, they’re performing the full-length ballet, using all of the music and even sometimes supplementing other pieces to transition between parts.
“Our costumes have definitely gotten better, too,” Lindsay adds.
Older participants who have been with the studio for a while look forward to the tradition.
“It’s ‘Nutcracker’ season starting in September,” Steven says.
With shows starting at the beginning of December, rehearsals for the older students begin at the end of September for eight to 10 weeks of practice. Coordinating all of those schedules is stressful. Integrating a wide range of skill sets and ages can also be logistically challenging. Each year, the Pipers think they have it down to a science, but some new obstacle to overcome always crops up.
Hesitant, nervous youngsters end up loving it in the end, and the atmosphere backstage is celebratory.
“The kids, they really support one another. It really is a family-type production. It really brings them together,” Steven says.
Lindsay loves seeing dancers progress through the process, when they finally nail the part they were struggling with during practice with on stage. Kids that have been with the school from the beginning grow up and make it on their own.
Steven says that parents that have not witnessed one of their performances before are consistently impressed with the professionalism despite being mostly children. That always brings a smile to the couple, as a lot of time goes into the preparation.
“We try to make it as much like a professional company’s production as possible, but with little kids,” Lindsay says.
Despite all of the stress, it’s never crossed their minds not to do it. Getting the students on stage is important, building their confidence. ‘Nutcracker’ crowds can be as large as 600. Dancing in the studio is great, but the performances are a culmination of all of that hard work. It’s also a memory these dancers will keep forever. The two recall graduated dancers commenting on social media about how much they miss it, staying friends with their fellow snowflakes and sugar plum fairies.
Steven and Lindsay’s three daughters also grew up dancing, so the whole family looks forward to the performances each year.
“Personally, that’s been great to see (our daughters) grow through the various roles,” Steven says.
And the two get a chance to dress up and dance themselves as the parents in the party scene.
“We look forward to it,” Steven says with a laugh.
“I have to say, sometimes, I feel like I’m so stressed out getting up to that point, then finally, it’s nice to be on stage, even at our older age. We’re not dancing anymore professionally, but we can be up there. We’ve been on stage with our own kids in the party scene, so that’s been fun, too,” Lindsay adds.
This year’s performance is bittersweet, as it’s the first year their eldest daughter Kyra will not be participating. Instead, she’ll be in her own ‘Nutcracker’ as she studies at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet School, one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions.
Along the way, the Pipers have become adept at keeping all of the moving parts of their large production in motion: costumes, ticket sales, advertising, music, props, backdrops, programs, schedules and so much more.
“After the dress rehearsals are over and we finally get to the performance day, I’m strangely calm. At that point, we’ve done everything we can do and things are ready. We get to just enjoy the performances. On the last day, we do always feel good when it’s over,” Lindsay says.
Holidays are on hold for the Piper family until the final curtain. Thanksgiving is truly their first day off, and that’s when the family finally has a chance to put up the Christmas tree.
“But we’re used to it. It’s just what we do,” Lindsay says. “And it’s worth it.”
If you go
Advance tickets are $15 and will be sold through Nov. 27 at www.tututix.com/BalletacademyofPittsburgh.
Tickets at the door are $20.
Performances at the Upper St. Clair High School Theater will be:
Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 1 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 2 at 2:00 p.m.