The Colorado Youth Ballet and its parent organization, Colorado Ballet Society, welcome, 10-year-old, Etsuko Smith and, 5-year-olds, Claira and Chloe Vanderhoef as their 2019 Nutcracker ‘Dancers for A Day’ for the upcoming seven performances of The Nutcracker, at 7:00pm on Friday, December, 20; and 2:00pm & 6:00pm on December 21-23 at the Ent Center for the Arts, 5225 N Nevada Ave in Colorado Springs. 150 cast members, including guest artists from Boulder Ballet, Ballet San Antonio, and Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet, and narrators from the FOX21 News Team will bring this classic tale to life with Tchaikovsky’s beloved score.
“Our ‘Dancer for A Day’ program is in its ninth year,” shares Ballet Society and Youth Ballet founder and director, Patricia Hoffman. “However, 2019 will be the first time we’ve had more than one Dancer for A Day join the cast and the first time we’ve included a super sibling.”
“Etsuko Smith is a sweet, genuine, and focused special guest artist,” explains Hoffman. “It is apparent she is passionate about the performing arts and we are honored to be part of her first on-stage experience.”
At age four, Etsuko and her younger brother were adopted in Texas. When she was 5-years-old, she went from being an active and happy child to being unable to do everyday tasks such as squeeze a tube of toothpaste or walk up stairs on her own. She was outfitted for a wheelchair and was soon diagnosed with Poly Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis with Amplified Pain Syndrome and Anxiety/PTSD. After six months of medication and hard work, Etsuko was able to walk, run, and dance again. She has been through every kind of therapy you can imagine and often has 2-3 doctor and therapy appointments every week. Her Physical Therapist, Allison Brown, nominated Etsuko for ‘Dancer for A Day.’
“This experience has given Etsuko a place to feel like she belongs, unconditionally,” shares her mom, Amber Smith. “She has been loved and respected by all of the dancers,
“The other day, she told me, ‘Mom, I thought I couldn't be famous because I have arthritis. Now I am going to be famous because I have arthritis.’ When she said this I realized what a big deal the Nutcracker is in her eyes and how truly honored she feels by this experience. I hope she takes away a sense that she can accomplish anything, and that people will embrace all of her, even the parts that she feels are exhausting, painful, bad, and overwhelming,” adds Smith.
When asked what she is most excited about in her part of the show, Etsuko reveals, “Getting to go on stage and dance around and hold a puppy.” Her favorite part of rehearsals has been the kindness the dancers have shown her.
“Also joining the 2019 Nutcracker cast is Claira and Chloe Vanderhoef.” shares Hoffman. “They are both charismatic, energetic, and compassionate special guest artists. Their love for ballet is overwhelming and we are elated to introduce them to the world of dance.”
Claira and Chloe are 5-year-old twins who were nominated for ‘Dancer for A Day’ by Make-A-Wish Colorado. Claira has been diagnosed with Alternating Hemiplegia of Childhood (AHC), Dysautonomia, and PHOX2B VUS. AHC is an ultra-rare neurological disease that affects one in a million children and causes repeated, transient attacks of hemiplegia (paralysis of a portion of the body). It is often described as having seven diseases in one as it causes neurodegeneration like Alzheimer’s, seizures like epilepsy, low muscle tone like cerebral palsy, and movement problems like Parkinson’s. These episodes are caused by triggers such as heat, cold, sunlight, fluorescent lights, water, illness, fatigue, injury, and exercise. Claira doesn’t let her disease define her and aspires to be a ballerina when she grows up, spending many of her good days dancing around the house. Chloe loves to bounce, twirl, and skip anywhere her ever-moving feet will take her. Watching her sister experience pain causes her much distress, but she holds her twin's hand through blood work, procedures, surgery recoveries, and countless doctor appointments. Having a medically complex sibling is not easy, but Chloe not only takes it in stride but also uses the experience to pass on love and compassion to everyone around her.
“Being a Dancer for A Day allows Claira’s dreams to come true while her body still allows her to dance,” says her mom, Kimberly Vanderhoef. “She has wanted to be a ballerina for some time now and I could not make it happen. Her prognosis can be frightening sometimes but when she dances, I see a little girl with many dreams who has overcome so much. This opportunity also gives both girls the chance to do something they love that doesn’t involve doctors, hospitals, or therapy. They simply get to be little girls who love to dance!”
“My favorite part of this experience is watching their faces light up with joy with each new step of the process--getting ballet shoes, going to rehearsals, and seeing the other dancers. They seem like such simple things but their little faces convey so much joy and it honestly brings me to tears,” adds Vanderhoef.
“Claira and Chloe are both kind, loving, and passionate people that focus more on others than they do themselves,” says Vanderhoef. “I hope they walk away from this experience learning that a diagnosis cannot take away your dreams, a prognosis is not a promise, and that there really are amazing organizations and people in this world that are happy to help make someone else’s dream come true.”
When asked what they are most excited about in their part of the show, Claira declares, “Sitting around the beautiful tree.” Chloe exclaims, “Going on stage and petting the dog.” Their favorite parts of rehearsals have been seeing the other dancers’ costumes and watching them dance. Chloe also loves making Ms. Grace laugh. Grace Davis is a current student at Colorado Ballet Society and our 2018 ‘Dancer for A Day.’ She has taken all three girls under her wing to welcome and mentor them.
“Etsuko’s daily struggle is excruciating and real,” explains Smith. “She and her brother have risen above some major trauma and every day is a challenge to heal. Opportunities like this and organizations like Colorado Ballet Society recognize that everyone needs to feel important and special.”
“The other day, Claira was upset she had missed ballet class and dress rehearsal due to illness,” shares Vanderhoef. “This sparked a conversation about why she likes ballet so much. Her reply both broke me and healed me. Claira said, ‘Mama, because I’m just like the other girls.’ I was a bit confused and asked her to explain more. She said, ‘I don’t wear my braces in ballet, and the other girls lose their balance sometimes too so I’m not different.’ I had no idea she was already starting to notice the isolation that comes with having health problems. I truly cannot thank Colorado Ballet Society enough for this opportunity! They all have allowed my daughter to truly be herself and do something she seems to really enjoy!”
The ‘Nutcracker Dancer for A Day’ program was instituted in 2010 by senior Ballet Society student and Colorado Youth Ballet member, Hannah (Olson) Diener, as her senior project when she was preparing to graduate from Pine Creeks HS; with the mission to provide for a child battling a life-threatening illness to be able to experience the joy of being part of the Nutcracker cast.
Diener credits a niece who was a Make-A-Wish recipient as the inspiration for her project which received an Arts/Business/Education Consortium (ABE) 2012 Arts Award. “I am touched and overjoyed that this project has been continued,” says Diener. “Bringing joy to the lives of seriously ill children holds a special place in my heart, and what a perfect time of year it is to be reminded of the impact of selfless love while finding joy in dance and sweet community.”
Diener went on to graduate with a degree in modern dance performance from the University of Oklahoma where she enjoyed the opportunity to study dance technique and dance history in Paris, France, over a summer and expanded her knowledge of technique, performance, and choreography. “My time at the Ballet Society laid a solid foundation of dance technique that has proved so essential to my understanding and execution of all forms of dance.”
“We are delighted to provide a special child with this unique opportunity each year,” shares Hoffman. “And our community really steps up to make the experience memorable for our Dancer for A Day.”
Caitlin Hopwood, owner of the Ballerina Boutique donated dancewear items which Etsuko, Claira, and Chloe will need for the show; Ted Mehl of A Better Image Photography has been photographing productions and dancer portraits for Colorado Ballet Society for nearly twenty years and each year he donates a portrait package to the Dancer for A Day; Ballet Society has donated tickets to the show for the Smith and Vanderhoef family.
“Across the world, families will come together and relive the magical tale of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince by attending the ballet this season and we are privileged to be part of this tradition,” shares Hoffman. “But there is extra joy in knowing that our production can have a positive impact on three special children right here in our community. Come see Etsuko, Claira, Chloe, and all our Nutcracker cast, in what we feel is the finest holiday production in our community!”
Who: Colorado Youth Ballet and dancers of Colorado Ballet Society
What: Nutcracker - 150 performers in this 75-minute production narrated by the Fox21 News Team. This family-friendly version features all your character favorites: The Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince, the Rat King and his ferocious Mice fighting the Toy Soldiers, and all the delights of the Winter Wonderland and the Land of the Sweets! Don't miss this holiday classic.
When: Friday, Dec. 20 at 7pm; Saturday-Monday, Dec. 21-23 at 2pm & 6pm
Where: Ent Center for the Arts 5225 N. Nevada Ave in Colorado Springs
Tickets: $18, $28, and $35 are available by check, cash, or credit card through the Ent Center box office (719-255-3232) and online HERE
Figure 1: Etsuko Smith’s School Photo Figure 2: Claira Vanderhoef’s School Photo Figure 3: Chloe Vanderhoef’s School Photo Figure 4: Etsuko Smith and a few fellow Party Scene dancers | PC: Kayla Coburn Figure 5: Etsuko Smith and Petey the Nutcracker Dog | PC: Kayla Coburn Figure 6: Claira and Chloe Vanderhoef with the Nutcracker Doll | PC: Kayla Coburn Figure 7: Claira Vanderhoef at the Ballerina Boutique. Claira and Chloe’s outfits were donated by Ballerina Boutique as part of their Dancer for a Day experience | PC: Kimberly Vanderhoef Figure 8: Chloe Vanderhoef getting ready for her first Sparkle class, wearing the dance outfit donated by Ballerina Boutique as part of the Dancer for a Day experience | (PC: Kimberly Vanderhoef Figure 9: Clara, Dew Drop Fairy, and Nutcracker Prince | PC: Ted Mehl of A Better Image Photography