All it’s cracked up to be
Breathing heavily, she counts her steps across the stage, dancing gracefully in her pointe shoes. Hours in, with feet sore from blisters, a racing heartbeat and a face full of exhaustion, she prepares for the role of a lifetime, a role she has trained and worked hard for, a role that puts her center stage.
Sophomore Helen Clark Hays practiced night after night since receiving the role of Clara in the annual Nutcracker ballet show. Her hard work culminated into four performances Dec. 6-8.
“I [played] Clara in the Nutcracker, which is a story about her dreams,” Hays said. “She gets a nutcracker for Christmas, and in her dream he comes to life and takes her to the land of sweets. The whole story is about her time in the land of sweets.”
Playing the lead has had many ups and downs for Hays because of the hours of practice and travel.
“It’s been really tiring,” Hays said. “I’ve had to practice with everybody, so I’ve been traveling back and forth from Atlanta, Ashdown and then back to Texarkana to practice with different groups. But it all paid off.”
The role was rewarding because it not only allowed Hays to prove herself as a dancer, but it also allowed her to hone her leadership skills and mentor young dancers.
“When I would go downstairs to check on my sister and all the dressing rooms, all these little girls would surround me and asked for my autograph and hug me and take pictures or selfies and it was just so sweet,” Hays said. “It was so fun because all these little girls look up to me, and when I’d be standing backstage waiting to go on, they’d all be over there talking to me being like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m right beside Clara!’ I just felt like a celebrity and it was fun being a role model for them.”
Alongside the weeks of practice, Hays had to juggle Highstepper practice and schoolwork, finding herself pulled in many different directions.
“Every Sunday I would travel to Ashdown for three hours to practice with the people in the big party scene. Monday and Tuesday I had my regular ballet classes, and then I would have practice with the peppermints,” Hays said. “Then I would drive to Atlanta for four hours and then back to Texarkana for more scenes, on top of schoolwork and my highstepper practices.”
A role like this is not an easy feat, but Hays has spent a large amount of her life dedicated to dance, perfecting her skills for this moment.
“I’ve been dancing for 13 years and this will be my eighth year in the Nutcracker, but my first year playing Clara,” Hays said. “But it’s all been worth it and [it was] so much fun getting to play Clara.”
The dedication paid off in the end when Helen received news that she landed the famed role. It was more than just getting to play Clara for her, it also meant adding to a family tradition between her and her mom.
“This is like a really big deal for me,” Hays said. “I’ve always wanted to be Clara. Every year after the last show, my mom gives me a nutcracker. This year she gave it to me early as it’s going to be the nutcracker I’m dancing with for the actual show which was really special to me.”
Her nutcracker reception was almost compromised, however, when her father suffered a stroke a month after she auditioned for the role.
“Well I wasn’t expecting [to receive the nutcracker early]. My dad had a stroke about a month after auditions,” Hays said. “So, life was a little crazy when we found out I was Clara, and Clara always puts on the big after party for the whole cast, so [my mom] had all of her friends over at our house and they were trying to plan the party because they wanted to get it all ready to go before Nutcracker week started.”
Despite the extra stress added to an already stressful week, Hays’ mom did not disappoint.
“And I had just come home from practice in Ashdown on Sunday, and all of her friends were meeting us at our house, and I was going to go back and do some homework,” Hays said. “She called me into the living room and they were all sitting there and she said ‘I have something for you,’ and she gave me this box, and I knew what it was because it was the shape of all my other nutcracker boxes.”
Hays felt the pressure of the past two months build up in the last few days before the show, finally releasing when her mother gave her the soldier. There were many more cathartic moments after the show though.
“I opened it, and it was like the nutcracker soldier,” Hays said. “[After the show ended] I was in the shower getting all the hairspray out of my hair, and I found snow in my hair from the stage, and I just cried a little bit.”
But for Hays it’s all been worth it, from the bruised feet and tired body to the hours of rehearsal and travel. It was an unforgettable role that left Hays with the best of memories, although she still has two more years to make more.
“Well, I know I’ll never be Clara again, because I can only be her one time, but I’ll always remember this year, just because everything was so crazy when it happened,” Hays said. “Life was just so crazy at the time, but it was the best year ever.”