Makiya Moore pounced on the chance this fall to become a mouse — or at least dance like one.
"The footwork is really fast. ... I knew it was going to be a really good opportunity, so I decided to take it, of course, because it seemed fun," she said.
An eighth-grader at Classen School of Advanced Studies Middle School, Makiya is among about 50 Oklahoma City area students who will perform with the professionals of RACE Dance Collective in "RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker." The high-energy holiday show is set for Dec. 3-4 at Oklahoma City Community College's Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater.
"We're working locally in the community, really trying to push forward dance education and funding for the arts and providing (opportunities) for kids," said Austin Nieves, RACE Dance Collective's co-creative director. "And we're providing industry work in a really, really tough industry in a really, really small area of the market here."
'RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker' adapts classic for contemporary times
About 15 artists from RACE Dance — a professional hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance company based in OKC — will take the stage with students from five Oklahoma City Public Schools: U.S. Grant, Capitol Hill, John Marshall and Southeast high schools as well as Classen SAS Middle School. Teenagers from RACE Dance Academy also will perform.
Hui Cha Poos, the dance collective's founder, adapted "RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker" from the beloved ballet that premiered in 1892 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. But she wanted to make "The Nutcracker" — which was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to Pyotr Tchaikovsky's now-iconic score and adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" — more relatable to contemporary audiences.
"It's gone through several iterations ... but the story is really just about coming full circle to what you feel like you're missing. Looking around, sometimes we miss what we have right in front of us," said Poos, who directs RACE Dance Academy.
RACE's reimagined version follows Carlos, the teenage son of a single mother. As he imagines what it would be like to have a father, the teen embarks on a journey of self-discovery featuring magic dolls, battling robots and tap-dancing Snowfly fairies.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to skip performing live last year, RACE Dance Collective collaborated with OKC filmmaker Lance McDaniel on "Finding Carlos," a film based on "RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker."
"The story is incredibly full of universal ideas: this idea of the importance of community, of wondering where you belong, the feeling of loneliness that we can all feel ... and then this ability for us to continue to grow and change and develop, whether you're an adolescent boy, like Carlos, or whether you're the person watching it from the audience," said RACE Dance Collective Co-Director Brandi Kelley. "Holiday magic sometimes reminds us of the magic that exists in the world — and that exists in ourselves."
Students are integral to 'RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker'
Inspired by her work with Douglass High School students in the 1990s, Poos said collaborating with schools has always been part of the Christmas show's concept. The past few years, the collective has kicked off the holidays with a Giving Soles campaign, raising funds to buy all the students a new pair of shoes to wear in the show and then keep.
"I've had teachers tell me that for some of these kids, that's their (Christmas) present. They don't always have a lot of gifts," Poos said.
To supply the shoes, the nonprofit is working this year with a new Edmond business, Variant Sneakers & Apparel. Owner John Ariete, who has a long history with RACE Dance, will be one of the show's emcees.
"Truly, if the student dances didn't exist, huge parts of our story would be missing. So, they're integral to the work that we do. They aren't just coming in for a one-day workshop or something," said Kelley, who teaches dance at Classen SAS Middle School.
Student dancers at the participating schools usually begin rehearsals for "RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker" in September or October, with company choreographers working weekly with the teens. Jesus Martinez, the choreographer who has been mentoring this year at Classen SAS Middle School, started with the production as one of the student dancers himself and will play the Mouse King in this year's show.
"We see a lot of success stories like that ... and then we have dancers that have gone through RACE Dance Academy or danced with RACE Dance Collective that are performing with the Thunder now or have gone on to cruise ships," Nieves said.
"We try to give a lot to the students when they're working with us. When we bring them in, we treat them like professionals; we don't treat them like they're little kids in a small recital. ... We're showing them what it's like to be in a production and work and be involved in something on a deep level."
Teens learn teamwork and confidence
Along with dance etiquette and terminology, Kelley said the students learn to adapt on the fly, work under pressure and come together as a team. D'Shai Edwards, a Classen SAS seventh-grader, was cast as one of the warrior mice because she happened to be working in the studio when another dancer didn't show up for the first weekly 7:30 a.m. rehearsal.
"I never really took hip-hop dance like this before, and it's cool to learn. ... I like the movements and stuff — it's more aggressive," D'Shai said. "The footwork is really fast. I'm kind of nervous 'cause I don't want to mess up ... but I am looking forward to it. And I'm excited to see what the other dancers are going to do."
Both she and Makiya, her schoolmate, said rehearsing for "RACE's Hip Hop Nutcracker" has inspired them to work hard, be confident and push through challenges, especially as they strive to learn the choreography to become fleet-footed fighting mice.
"The first time I learned it, I was like, 'Yeah, I'm not gonna be able to get this.' ... But I pretty much know the whole dance now," Makiya said.
"I'm nervous about it. But I feel like the outcome is going to be amazing. I feel like it's going to be a great experience, and there's going to a lot of love put into it. And I'm just ready to tell the story."
'RACE’s Hip Hop Nutcracker'
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4.
Where: Oklahoma City Community College Visual and Performing Arts Center, 7777 S May Ave.
Tickets and information: racedance.com.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC students leap into holiday season with RACE Dance Collective's 'Hip Hop Nutcracker'