The Nutcracker At It’s Corps With Apprentice, Madison Morris

Like most ballet companies, Houston Ballet has a long-standing Nutcracker tradition. And so, the production and its elements are woven into the fabric of the company culture. When new members enter the community, I imagine them as threads, being absorbed into the warp and woof.

Headshot for Madison Morris by Amitava Sarkar

Madison Morris; Photo by AMitava Sarkar

For a company apprentice like Madison Morris, already a part of the wider Houston dance community before entering the Houston Ballet Academy as a youth, Ben Stevenson’s production of The Nutcracker must feel truly etched in the consciousness.

Though born in Charlotte, NC, Madison moved to Dallas with her family just after her first birthday. In any other locale, one might be considered a native in this case but, this is Texas. So, quoting what is possibly the state’s most popular fridge magnet, Madison mentions, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!”

At four, she and her family moved to Houston where her mother enrolled her at Woodlands Civic Ballet. “For seven years, I trained as both a ballerina and a competitive gymnast. In February 2005, I auditioned and was accepted into Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program as a Level 3/Level 4 dancer. After three full years training in Houston Ballet Academy and two years in Houston Ballet II (HBII), I am now enjoying dancing professionally with Houston Ballet,” she explains.

The Corps Experience

While each dancer performs many roles throughout the Nutcracker run, each learns even more than they will perform. Madison has been charged with knowing eleven corps de ballet roles for this production. She will perform eight of them throughout the season’s 34 shows.

Madison took time-out from her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about what it’s like to perform in the corps during this busy holiday season. She reveals both the hard work and dedication required of apprentices and the corps and an insider’s view of the sometimes action-packed events going on behind the scenes at Nutcracker performances.

Dance Advatage: Describe the preparation and rehearsal process for The Nutcracker.

Madison Morris: In October, while rehearsing for other current or future productions, it’s typical to be called to different Nutcracker rehearsals as well. We begin to learn, or freshen our memories, on our assigned parts. From this point forward , we strive to perfect our execution of the choreography. Then, in early November, Nutcracker rehearsals kick into full swing. In addition to dancing, learning a piece commonly involves reviewing recorded performances from previous years.

Madison Morris airborne; photo by Jim Caldwell

Madison Morris; Photo by Jim Caldwell

DA: What is your approach to staying healthy during this time?

MM: The same arsenal of common sense I attempt to employ year round. I eat a well-balanced diet and take vitamins to fuel my body. Also, Vitamin C, Fish Oil and B-12 to boost my immune system, as needed. The moment I feel a sore throat begin, I have learned taking a Mushroom Complex supplement wards it off.

Hydration helps me through hectic training times, too.  In addition to water, I drink coconut water. It is more natural than a sports drink, low in calories, and it is loaded with Vitamin C, electrolytes, and potassium. It even beats bananas! My two favorite flavors are mango and pink guava.

I keep water or coconut water on hand at all times and I make sure to eat protein.  I don’t always have time for a meal, so snacks are really important. I enjoy  pumpkin seeds, cocoa almonds, cashews, and trail mixes. I also love fresh and dried fruits.

DA: You’ll have lots of dual performance days during the run. What do you do in between a matinee and evening show?

MM: I look forward to resting and refueling myself between shows. I usually pack a dinner or go back home to grab a bite to eat. Occasionally, a group of us venture out for a coffee or quick bite.

DA: Which roles are you cast in for this season’s Nutcracker?

MM: Mirliton, Columbine Doll, Flower, Snowflake, Ginger Legs, and three different mothers in the party scene.

DA: Is it a challenge sometimes to remember what you are doing, and when? Are there any tricks to keeping it all straight?

MM: Yes, it can prove challenging to keep the roles separate in your mind. One year, throughout the run of shows, I performed two different snowflake spots, which were on completely opposite ends of the stage at one moment, and then directly beside each other the next.

I think it is far easier to separate choreography in your mind, and body, if they are on opposite sides of the stage, because your body can recognize the parts as distinctly different. At one point in the snowflakes dance there is a ripple effect down the “snowbank” of dancers. The year I performed these two snowflakes spots, I either moved on count one or count two. Since they were directly next to each other spatially and in timing, I always had to make sure to focus on that section to ensure my muscle memory would not lapse into the other part.

One thing I find helpful for keeping multiple parts straight is to simply write out the different roles on paper.

DA: Which is your favorite role to dance?

MM: I love the music and choreography of Houston Ballet’s Waltz of the Flowers. The movements feel very natural and are a joy to dance as you flow with the music and attempt to consume the stage. The flowing choreography, with the corps de ballet dressed in yellow and green romantic tutus, subtly reminds me of a garden full of the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” This year, I am also looking forward to performing as the Columbine Doll in Act I and as a Mirliton in Act II.

Houston Ballet's Rat Stanley - a fun photo project

The Rat Stanley Project -- Click the photo to learn more about or participate in this fun photo initiative by Houston Ballet

DA: Is it difficult to give a fresh performance each time?

MM: I find taking it one show at a time and remembering that each audience deserves a great performance motivates me to keep it lively. Though the choreography and music are unchanged from show to show, the one fresh factor remains the viewers. An audience’s enthusiasm can fill the theatre and fuel the dancers with energy.

DA: Okay, every ballet dancer I know has one: What’s your funny Nutcracker story?

MM: My funniest Nutcracker memory involves rushing to fill an empty spot last year in the battle scene in which the girls portray rats and boys act as toy soldiers.

Not cast as a rat for this particular show, I was preparing for and focusing on my role in flowers. When the rats left the basement dressing room to join the battle scene, there was one rat costume still hanging unused.  Out of those of us available, who instantly realized there was a rat “missing in action,” I was the only one in pointe shoes who might have had a prayer of making it in time to go on stage.

Immediately, HBII teamwork saved the day. While I tore the flowers headpiece off my head, one friend grabbed the rat tail harness, another got the body suit, and still another secured the helmet/mask. As my friends helped me dress in record time, another HBII deduced I needed to fill the #6 rat spot, which I had never done before.  I, literally, ran down the Wortham (Center) basement halls, up the stairs, and around the back of the stage to join the other rats as they entered the scene.

Once on stage, I was clueless on the specifics of rat #6 throughout the battle. Thankfully, somehow my toy soldier with whom I was to “fight” was notified of the sudden substitute filling his rat partner’s costume. He was able to drag me through the scene. The funniest moment, for me, occurred near the end of the battle. As the scene drew to a close the rat king died, and I started to let out slight sighs of relief. Then, suddenly I wondered if rat #6 was to help carry the king safely off stage?!? It would not do to have a dead rat king laying on stage during the snowflake scene.

Needless to say, relief flooded me once I arrived back in the dressing room.  As it turned out, the missing rat was actually in the building, but forgot she was assigned this performance.

Great story, Madison!

What’s YOUR Nutcracker story?

While you’re thinking, enjoy this excerpt from Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker battle scene:

Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker

Watch this video on YouTube.

How to Be a Great Teacher’s Assistant

Being invited to assist your dance teacher in classes is a great honor. It usually means that he/she has observed characteristics like your dedication to dance, your willingness and cooperation in class, and perhaps your caring or compassionate nature. Perhaps, in you, your instructor may see the spirit of a future teacher and would like to cultivate and nurture these qualities. As does “great power,” great honor comes with “great responsibilities.”**

What kinds of responsibilities can you expect? And how can you make the experience a good one for you and the teacher you are helping?

**(see this article for a little info about the origins of the paraphrased quote above)


Tap TimeThe responsibilities and tasks left to assistants may differ from teacher to teacher. However, the following are some general duties that you might expect or that may fall to you should you take on the role of an assistant in a dance class.

  • Help with attendance/roll-taking
  • Walk among the students as your teacher leads the class,
  1. making corrections,
  2. assisting a struggling dancer, or
  3. correcting students who are misbehaving or not following instructions.
  • Lead certain warm-ups or exercises while your teacher
  1. handles the above tasks
  2. steps out for a moment
  3. handles a more severe discipline issue
  4. observes you in order to give some tips
  • Help children during shoe changes, bathroom or water breaks
  • Hand out props or set up items to be used in class
  • Keep an eye out for potential hazards like untied shoe laces or poor spacing/awareness while children are dancing
  • Be a source of positive and enthusiastic energy in the class
  • Keep students on task and focused
  • Offer encouragement to dance students during the class
  • Help to line up students and to keep them in line
  • Lead or participate in choreography/recital dances
  • Answer basic questions that parents may have
  • Work seamlessly with your teacher by anticipating his/her needs so that together you can provide a fun and supportive learning environment for younger dancers


As you can see being a teacher’s assistant involves a lot more than just showing up for classes. Your role as an extra pair of eyes, ears, arms, and legs for your teacher is an important one! Here are some pointers on how to be effective in this role and in relationship to the responsibilities above.

  • Don’t wait to be asked especially when you’ve been assigned small tasks that are done for each lesson (like taking roll or handing out stickers at the end of class). This is what it means to anticipate. Developing this awareness is important if you want to be a great assistant.
  • Be unobtrusive. When you see a student that needs your help or correction, address or pull them aside quietly so that you don’t distract other class members.
  • Don’t be a distraction. Follow the lead of your teacher. If he/she is trying to get the class to pay attention, that is your job too. Unless you are leading or teaching, you are there to help keep the students’ attention on your teacher or on what they are doing (not to pull focus to yourself).
  • “Sandwich” your corrections between two good things. For instance say something like “Anna, you are pointing your toes nicely, try to keep your knee straight when you tendu. You are being a great listener today!”
  • Offer positive reinforcement instead of yelling or complaining about bad behavior. In fact, some of the techniques in this post about teaching tots can help you interact with the kids (tots or not).
  • Be prepared and on time. Being prepared can be anything from having the proper clothes or shoes with you to knowing the exercises or dances that you are supposed to lead.
  • Ask questions, give suggestions, and save the silliness until after class whenever possible. Your teacher is counting on being able to focus on her class of students without worrying about you (or your behavior) at the same time. You will be the focus when it’s your turn in class.
  • Show your enthusiasm without being silly. Use a bright tone of voice (think of sort of making your voice slightly higher) when you talk to the children, use a lot of energy when you demonstrate, and smile a lot. This will show your enthusiasm and still keep the kids focused and paying attention. You can have fun as long as you are not distracting the students from what they are doing.
  • Be ready for the unexpected and try to handle things maturely when they do. If you work with very young children you must be prepared for the occasional “accident” and its aftermath. You can also expect that sometimes kids will say some pretty funny or strange things. Again, watch your teacher for how to respond in an appropriate, kind, and respectful manner.
  • Know when to refer a parent to your teacher. If you are approached by a parent with a question and are not sure how to answer, don’t make it up. If it seems the parent is upset it is not your job to deal with the problem. If a parent wants you to know why or why not things are being done the way they are, it is best to let your teacher address this. If you are uncomfortable in any way with the question, it is okay to pass it on to the teacher!
  • Give corrections and discipline with confidence. Admittedly, it can be kind of strange to suddenly be “in charge” when you are normally a pupil yourself. But even though the children in your class probably look up to you, they are not likely to listen to you if you don’t speak clearly and firmly. Sandwiching corrections and being positive may help you to feel like you are not being mean or yelling. Try to avoid making requests in the form of a question (For ex: “Are you ready to put the props away?”). This gives the impression that they have an option to say no. (Instead try “Alright, it’s time to put the props away!” in a way that sounds as if you are excited to be moving on to the next activity as well).
  • Communicate clearly with your teacher. If you have a question, ask at an appropriate time. If you are not sure what is expected of you, don’t be afraid to ask or find out how you can improve.
  • Get some sleep. You are probably a busy teen or pre-teen with homework, dance classes, and other activities in which you are involved. If you are well rested you will be more useful to your teacher and be more energetic in your classes (all of them). If you are missing sleep to fit everything in, maybe you should discuss this with your parents and teacher. Adding an apprenticeship to your activities may not be in your best interest right now.

I hope you’ve found these useful. If you have a question or need some advice about working as an assistant, dealing with situations in the classroom, or approaching your teacher, I’d be glad to help if I can.

The lists above are surely not complete. How would add to them?
Let me know in the comments below this post!
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