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Every Dance From The Nutcracker: Ranked By An Ex Dancer

Written by Grace Bradley

Photography by Alec Conwell

CD/PM: Jazzi Almestica

PA: Lucy Anderson

Styling and Design: Catalina Torres

Talent: Callie Okun, Kalia Bar, Orlando Rodriguez

It’s the holiday season, which means it’s time for me to reminisce on my dancer years. I started dancing when I was six, and quit when I was sixteen. Over those ten years, I performed in my studio’s production of The Nutcracker just about every year. Therefore, I believe I am more than qualified to give a definitive ranking of every dance in the show, so, come take a journey with me to the land of sweets and get ready for some hot takes!

Number Twenty - Toy Soldiers

And in dead last, we have my most detested toy soldiers. It’s just as boring as sin. The choreography can only do so much while maintaining the soldier aspect, and those stupid hats are impossible to keep on. The music isn’t anything to write home about either. I was in this number a few times, and I loathed it every time, and so did my fellow soldiers. Compared to the other numbers in the battle scene, this one pales in comparison.

Number Nineteen - Chinese Tea

There’s a lot of racial undertones throughout the show, but this one feels particularly offensive. The music is flat-out uncomfortable, and so is the choreography and costuming in most productions I’ve seen. It’s also really too short to leave any impact, especially compared to dances that are about the same length. It’s short, but not so sweet.

Number Eighteen - Angels

I’ve always hated this one after having done it for a few years in a row as a young child. it’s yawn-inducing really. The choreography is typically underwhelming, and the music is repetitive and tired. Most of the dance is made up of little girls walking in different line formations, and that can only hold one’s attention for so long. At least the sugar plum fairy, is featured, but overall, this can be considered filler.

Number Seventeen - The Magic Castle In The Land of Sweets

I don’t have a lot to say for this number because it exists purely as a story function, so it doesn’t have a lot of wow factor. Studios also tend to this one differently, but it’s fun to see and react to the prince explaining the events of the first act.

Number Sixteen - Party Scene Toy Soldier This one goes by a few different names. Sometimes it’s just a male doll, other times it’s a toy soldier. My studio portrayed the solo as a soldier, hence the title of this entry. Anyway, this number has never really stuck out to me. It’s fun to act in if you’re playing a boy in the party scene, but the music is decent and the choreography tends to be a bit too formulaic in my opinion.

Number Fithteen - Tarantella

We skipped this one at my studio, so I don’t have much of a personal connection to it. The main reason it’s this low on the list is because it unfortunately has to follow the pas de deux, so in comparison, this one feels inherently inferior. It’s there to be a fun number following such an emotional piece as the pas de deux, but eh. Not my favorite.

Number Fourteen - The Party Scene

I obviously can’t rank every single dance in this scene because this list would be longer than it already is and everyone does it slightly differently. I do have a lot of favorite moments, however. Drosselmeyer’s arrival is incredible particularly because the music is absolutely riveting. I always held my breath during that part. The moment when Clara and Drosselmeyer’s nephew reach out to each other is also such a beautiful moment. It’s a great scene to act in if you’re playing a child (especially a boy which I hated the first time I did it, but ended up loving it the next year because they get to do so much more than the girls). The lows include the parents’ dance because it feels sort of tacked on, and I hated having to sit through it during dress rehearsal. When this scene is good, it’s incredible, but when it lulls, it’s honestly boring as hell. If you’re wondering why the Doll numbers are separate from the rest of the party scene, I thought that since they’re solos, they should be ranked separately.

Number Thirteen - A Pine Forest In Winter

I was never a fan of this one, It felt longer to me than it was during rehearsals, which might be saying something. I’ve come to appreciate the scoring of this scene, it is beautiful. Perhaps it’s because I associate this with my yearly panic attack because it’s right before snow that I don’t have the fondest feelings towards it, but I think the quality of the music elevates this number.

Number Twelve - Doll

Doll is cute, and that’s kind of about it. The costume is adorable and it’s a lot of fun to perform.

Number Eleven - Russian

This is probably a hot take because I know how iconic and beloved Russian is, but I think it’s overrated. It’s usually done one of two ways, as a candy cane number or a traditional Russian dance, and there isn’t a whole lot of room for invention with the concept. The rigidness of how the number is conceived can only be interesting for so long. If you’re a choreographer and you’re somehow reading this, please come up with choreography that isn’t either children jumping through hula hoops or stereotypical americanized Russian folk dancing! Also, the song is overplayed. This is my truth, and I must live in it.

Number Ten - Mice/Mouse King/Battle Scene As A Whole

This is technically, cheating because this makes up a whole scene along with the soldiers, but soldiers is so bad that it deserves its own entry, especially compared to how awesome the mice are. I never got to be a mouse, which I’m still upset about. This scene, outside of soldiers, is so good. The music: incredible (the Mouse King entrance!!). The mice being silly and overdramatic when he is stabbed: iconic. Clara throwing the shoe: that’s mother! When done well the battle scene can be a joy to watch. Soldiers y'all can choke!!

Number Nine - Spanish

I have a soft spot for this one because I was the lead for Spanish a few years in a row And speaking from experience, it’s really only fun if you’re the lead. I was a guy when I was in the ensemble for this number, and let me tell you that was even worse. The costumes are usually interesting and very pretty, which adds a lot. Also, I’ve always found Spanish’s scoring to be underrated. Give it a listen if you haven’t because I love it a lot. A bite-sized number, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

Number Eight - Mother Ginger and the Polichinelles

A fan favorite, and that’s mostly owed to the iconic Mother Ginger. Outside of her, Polichinelles (or as my studio called them, pollies) is an adorable romp. It’s also a lot harder than it looks given how fast it is and most of the people who perform it are under the age of ten. The best part of Pollies was seeing all the little kids get off stage beaming because of how proud of themselves they were. Also, the music SLAPS. It’s a beloved number for a reason!

Number Seven - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

To be totally honest here, I also think this one’s a tad overrated, but I’d be wrong to rank it low. Anyone who performs this number is a saint. I never wanted to be the sugar plum fairy because look at what she has to do. When done well, the costuming and sheer stamina of the performer make this number a standout. This dance may look effortless, but having watched weeks of a dancer rehearse this, I can tell you that is not. All the little touches and nuances take a long time to perfect. If you happen to be reading this and have done this solo, here is me officially giving you your flowers. You’re a trooper if there ever was one.

Number Six - Marzipan

Also known as Dance of the Reed Flutes, I was never in this one for some reason but always wanted to do it because the choreography goes hard. It's so intricate and precise! I love this number as a group dance, but it’s particularly impressive when done as a trio. The amount of time dancers spend on the top of their box for Marzipan is astounding. The section of the music where it becomes intense and foreboding before switching back to airy is one of my favorite musical moments in the show. I still remember my studio’s choreography despite never being in the number and I still find myself executing it in my room. Clearly, I’m still bummed I missed out on it!

Number Five - Finale

This is a personal favorite of mine. Seeing everyone’s specific music cues and entrances and then the joy of dancing as one, and that final moment where Clara decides to go home has always made me profoundly emotional no matter how many times I did it. Something about the scene has stuck with me for a reason I don’t entirely understand. It’s poignant and beautiful, and that’s all you need.

Number Four - Waltz of the Flowers

The music is beautiful, the costumes are elegant and the audience always loves it, but it is difficult and it is long. We spent hours getting the formations right because as easy as it looks they are intense and extremely specific, especially combined with how many dancers are in the number. My favorite part is the grand finale when the music turns triumphant, and also the one minute where we just stand there and Dew Drop does a solo both because it’s a nice break but also because it's cool to watch a soloist.

Number Three - Arabian Coffe

I just adore Arabian, mainly because the music is truly something to behold. It’s both haunting and melodic in a way that’s difficult to describe if you haven’t heard it. To put it plainly: the vibes are off the chart. This one’s another great one to watch backstage. The audience becomes so enraptured in the performance that you could hear a pin drop. It’s typically a hit with the family, at least with my family who, yes, did watch the show every time I was in it. My high school’s version of Arabian was especially magical. There is an elephant in the room though, and it’s those racial undertones I mentioned earlier. This number is almost always done by white dancers, and the choreography is extremely Westernized. I think the number would be a trillion times more effective if done by actual Arab dancers with authentic Arabian folk dance.

Number Two - Watz of the Snowflakes

I have a complex relationship with snow. I genuinely couldn’t listen to it for a good while after performing in it because I associated it so heavily with dread and anxiety, that’s how challenging this dance is. I mentioned this earlier, but nearly every time I did snow I had a mini (and one time a legit one) before it started. This, outside of any of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dances, is the hardest piece in the show. The music speeds and swells almost at random, the timing is crazy, the spacing is bizarre, and don’t even get me started on the middle section where you’re basically dancing for your life with how fast it’s going. The number is supposed to mimic a snowstorm, so it makes sense that it’s intense, to say the least. But man. When the snow clears, the music calms, and Clara and her princes enter, it’s the stuff of dreams. And the snow falling from the rafters is the cherry on top. The end of snow made me emotional every time and it still does just listening to it. Waltz of the Snowflakes, is quite literally hell to get through, but it’s also possibly the most rewarding number in the show, both for the dancers and the audience.

Number One - Pas De Deux

If you’re at all familiar with The Nutcracker, I’m sure that you’re not at all surprised that act two’s Pas De Deux is number one. What can I say about this that hasn’t already been said? Let’s start with the music. There’s a strong argument to be made that it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. The journey it takes the listener on never dulls even after hearing it a million times. What begins as a quiet but wonderfully romantic suite turns into a nervous plea before delving into dread and then into pure terror, before crescendoing into what only can be described as what pure, unadulterated joy must sound like. It closes with the sound of blissful violins and a victorious three count. If you somehow haven’t listened to the Pas De Deux, please do yourself a favor and listen to it. And the choreography! The part where the prince lifts the Sugar Plum Fairy right as the music climaxes, and then dips her when it lulls! When the Sugar Plum Fairy turns every time the music flutters in the middle! That moment at the beginning where they just gesture to each other! And the attitude en pointe at the end? Insane! The Pas De Deux is simply too gorgeous for words, despite my best attempts at trying to describe it just now. It’s a prime example of how music and dance can go beyond the spoken word and hit at something more raw, more human. It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple.

And that folks is the ranking! This was so much fun to put together and I hope my takes weren’t too hot. If you haven’t seen The Nutcracker, there are several filmed versions on YouTube, because seeing the show live and in person is quite expensive. I love this show to bits and the memories attached to it, both good and bad. Just as soldiers will be awful for all eternity, I hope that The Nutcracker persists for another three hundred years.

Written by Grace Bradley

Photography by Alec Conwell

CD/PM: Jazzi Almestica

PA: Lucy Anderson

Styling and Design: Catalina Torres

Talent: Callie Okun, Kalia Bar, Orlando Rodriguez

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