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The 12th annual Dance-Along Nutcracker

Audiences young and old join professional ballet dancers onstage at the Dance-Along Nutcracker.

“It’s like Running of the Brides [the one-day bargain wedding dress sale], except they’re in tutus,” says Amy Sprenger, a 38-year-old mother of three, trying to describe the Dance-Along Nutcracker.

We’re sitting in the waiting area of Lincoln Park’s Art Reaching Children of Chicago ballet and dance school, watching kindergarten-aged dancers—including Sprenger’s five-year-old, Emmie—practice basic ballet positions. Rubbernecking from the back row to catch her daughter’s every move, Sprenger adds with a grin, “You’ll want to go with a team. Someone needs to cop good seats. Another person should [attend] the lessons [beforehand].”

Since its first Chicago performance in the early aughts, Dance-Along Nutcracker (not to be confused with Do-it-Yourself-Nutcracker, which is a Chicago Park District event) has become a holiday tradition for families. More than 300 people attend each year in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall. Attendees are invited to twirl and pirouette with young students from Ballet Chicago, while the Lakeside Pride Music Ensemble, clad in red and green attire and plush reindeer antlers, plays Tchaikovsky’s classic score. An actress wearing an elf’s getup provides narration. (This year, Amber Robinson fills in for CAN-TV children’s-dance-show sidekick Miss Mia Parks, who usually emcees.)

The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band created the Dance-Along in 1985, inspired by the Sing-It-Yourself Messiah held in San Francisco each year. Then, the dance-along was a formal affair, meant for grown-ups only. “At that point, no one imagined it could be a children’s show, because the majority of the mainstream world was suspicious of children interacting with gay people, and the idea of a gay group doing a children’s show was unthinkable,” explains SFLGFB member Heidi Beeler.

“Around 15 years [ago], the show moved to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Attitudes began to change. Parents with children began to come. Now our daytime shows are packed with children,” Beeler says.

The Chicago expansion of Dance-Along Nutcracker can be traced back to arts consultant Peter McDowell. The former program director at the Department of Cultural Affairs (1997–2006) says he got the idea from the San Francisco (original) version, which he came to know while living in San Francisco in the ’90s.

“[Dance-Along Nutcracker’s] intention is to look like the city that it is serving. It’s very inspiring for other youth to see young people making accomplishments,” says Ballet Chicago founder Daniel Duell.

This year will be the second time around for Sprenger and her daughter, and it looks as if the tradition may continue. “My youngest daughter, Maeve, will be old enough to do it next year. I just love the looks on their faces when they see the ballerinas all in costume—it’s like they’re seeing real live princesses!”

The 12th annual Dance-Along Nutcracker is Sunday 9 at the Chicago Cultural Center.