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The Modern Domestic Woman: Remembering dance class, appreciating 'The Nutcracker'

Ashlie Andersen, director of ballet at A Step Above Dance Academy in Batavia and artistic director of "The Fox Valley Nutcracker," works with Ava Misner, who plays Clara Stahlbaum in the production.
Ashlie Andersen, director of ballet at A Step Above Dance Academy in Batavia and artistic director of "The Fox Valley Nutcracker," works with Ava Misner, who plays Clara Stahlbaum in the production.

The older I get, I find myself reminiscing about the desires of my youth. It’s remarkable, when you start to experience the complexities of adult-ing that your mind naturally wanders to the simplicities of childhood.

One area my 9-year-old heart was fond of was my ballet and jazz class. Miss Jan was my teacher, and we would warm up to songs like “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, our little pink feet tapping the floor to the new wave ‘80s tune. I’m giggling as I write this recalling how Miss Jan would exclaim, “kicky-kicky!” to encourage us to kick our legs up attempting a cartwheel.

I later discovered the joy of reading “The Nutcracker” and then – as a young adult – watching the production on stage. Long gone were my days in ballet, as puberty set in and I became less elegant and more clumsy on the dance floor, but my heart still appreciated the beauty of little Clara, the proud Nutcracker, and the silly little mice. This time of year musters so many emotions, and, yes, a few regrets of how my life could have been different should I have stuck with ballet.

After turning 40, my mission of “self-care or bust” took me to A Step Above Dance Academy in Batavia to take ballet and tap. I noticed my heart beating with the enthusiasm of that 9-year-old girl I once knew, even though I was much taller and a whole lot grayer.

I found out A Step Above hosts rehearsals for “The Fox Valley Nutcracker,” presented by Fox Valley Ballet, a 501c3 nonprofit organization led by Ashlie Andersen.

My inner ballerina urged me to sit in on a rehearsal!

Andersen, the director of ballet at A Step Above and artistic director of “The Nutcracker,” is no stranger to dance. In fact, her entire life has taken her on an adventure throughout many aspects of the performing arts, including the task of pulling together a large scale production.

With nearly 100 cast members, this is not a modest suburban show. In fact, Andersen has rallied professional dancers like Elivelton Tomazi and Valeriia Chaykina of the infamous Joffrey Ballet in Chicago to showcase this year. Along with Ballet 5:8, local dancers from over 20 different dance studios in the western suburbs are a part of this beloved holiday classic.

Rehearsal was magical in itself. I could see the spark in Andersen’s eyes as she encouraged her cast and never hesitated to jump in knowing each dance by heart.

The students responded to her with that same anticipation and enthusiasm, and even though they needed a correction here and there, the mood from the entire cast reflected the magic of Tchaikovsky’s scores.

“Miss Ashlie made me the dancer I’ve become today,” said St. Charles resident Aria Novak.

Novak, who has only been dancing for four years and plays the Arabian lead, also appears as the Columbine Doll and a member of the Flower Corps in this production. Reflecting on her short journey as a dancer, Novak gushed with excitement about “The Nutcracker,” and also of her teacher.

“It was intimidating at first to start lessons when I was 12,” explained Novak. “A lot of these girls had been dancing since they were 2 years old, and here I was, taking my first class.”

“Miss Ashlie gave me the confidence I needed during my training,” recalled Novak. “I know I am not only in good hands with her mastering ballet, but on the right path to becoming a better dancer.”

Ava Misner, who is playing Clara Stahlbaum for the first time in “The Fox Valley Nutcracker,” shared her favorite part of the production, the party scene, in which the Stahlbaum family welcomes guests to its annual Christmas party. The music swells with excitement as the children receive gifts and enjoy the holiday celebration.

But how does a fifth-grader deal with the pressure of being on stage? Misner shared with me her advice to dancers her age.

“If you make a mistake, just try to smile and go with it,” Misner encouraged young performers. “The audience probably won’t notice anyway.”

Watching Misner rehearse made me feel like a little girl again. Her soft demeanor was a delight to experience, and her precise movement had me in awe of such talent at a young age.

Eleven-year-old Alexis Schueller of North Aurora, featured in several dances, loves the Spanish dance the best because of the sassy beat of the fandango. We chatted during the cast’s break, and Schueller assured me that it wasn’t hard to remember all the dances.

“Miss Ashlie is very precise with her teaching and makes sure you know what you’re doing every step of the way,” explained Schueller. “Which makes me feel relieved.”

Schueller went on to describe the happy vibe I could physically see in the faces of the dancers busting about rehearsal, noting that even though training for “The Nutcracker” is hard, “When everyone comes together during tech week, it’s so exciting!”

This deep-rooted love for the performing arts, and “giving” dance to everyone around her brings Andersen not only to the stage, but out into the northern Illinois area. “The Nutcracker” doesn’t end when the curtain goes down. Andersen makes sure children who cannot make it to the performance get a taste of the magic, too. On the board of the Ronald McDonald House Community Advisory Committee in Winfield, Andersen and members of the show, in full costume mind you, visit the pediatric department at Central DuPage Hospital. Truly the spirit of Christmas in action!

If rehearsal was this good, I can’t wait to see what the performance will bring. “The Fox Valley Nutcracker” performances are held Nov. 25 and 26 at the Batavia Fine Arts Center. To buy tickets, call 630-937-8930 or go to

Smitten with domestic life, but not to the point of unhealthy obsession, “The Modern Domestic Woman” author and St. Charles resident, Elizabeth Rago, is a freelance writer who spends her days writing for PB Kitchen Design in Geneva. You can visit her blog at or connect with Rago on Facebook at Feedback can be sent to

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