I was three when my mom took me to The Nutcracker for the first time. Reportedly, I behaved very well. I don’t remember how I acted, but I do remember the wonder and amazement that I felt at seeing the production as a toddler. I really wanted Little Jacks to have that same feeling, but I was scared that at 2.5 she might not be able to handle it. Could we pull off a successful toddler viewing of The Nutcracker? We were sure going to try!
I first asked her if she would be interested in going on a date with me where we would watch people dance. That sounded great to her (but she’d be happy to go on a date with me to get her flu shot… no kidding!). The next step was to figure out if she would be interested enough in the story to sit through two 50 minute sections.
I told her the story of the Nutcracker and then showed her a YouTube clip of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She seemed intrigued by that… what I mean by intrigued is that she spun around the room trying to dance the part for more than half an hour. I took that as a good sign.
The next step was to prepare her for the more scary elements of the story. Specifically, I was thinking of the war between the rats and the soldiers. We watched a clip of this on YouTube as well. Her response was, “Mama, I’m not scared of the rats, I’m cute of the rats!” She really got a kick out of Clara, the little girl, hitting the rat king on the head with her ballet slipper! Another hurdle seemed out of the way.
Next, I looked into tickets. I had to acknowledge to myself that all the preparation in the world might not translate into a good experience in the moment, so I wanted to find seats that were towards the back of the theater with easy access to the exit and hopefully on an aisle so we could leave without being the jerks that blocked everyone’s view during the show. I then had to consider which showing might be best for us. Matinees were during nap-time, but then again she’s been dropping naps frequently. The other showing was at 7 pm. A 7 pm showing might mean that we wouldn’t get home until almost 10. That wouldn’t be great either. In the end, I decided that it would be better to miss a nap and go to bed early rather than have a girl who was completely fried at the end of the day.
As a side note, I read on the Ballet West website that no children under the age of 3 were allowed into the performances and that the recommendation was that children should be at least 8 years old to attend. At first, I thought, “Oh, well they don’t know my kid.” In rapid succession, I thought, “Man, they probably see this happen and fail All. The. Time. Maybe it’s a really bad idea!”
Finally I figured I would trust my gut that Little Jacks would be able to handle it. And besides, selfishly I really wanted to see the Nutcracker. Since Mr. Jacks didn’t want to go, Little Jacks was my best hope!
We talked about The Nutcracker every day for a week. By the time we were set to go, LJ could recite the whole story to me and could identify the different characters in various YouTube videos. She asked for the Rat War frequently and I continued to be optimistic about the probability of her making it through.
But, I didn’t want to leave anything up to chance. I invited one of her little buddies (who I knew would be well behaved) and his mom. On the day of the performance, we had LJ sleep in late since she wouldn’t be getting her nap. We timed our arrival at the performance to be early enough to move easily through the theater, but late enough that we wouldn’t have to wait for long for the lights to go down and the show to start. We had our pockets stuffed with treats for the kids: chocolate covered raisins, fruit snacks, and the ever-elusive gummi bears. If nothing else, we could bribe for a while!
My friend and I discussed our contingency plans before the show. I didn’t want it to be distressing, scary or boring, so I committed to leaving if LJ was showing signs of any of those things. My friend agreed. We arranged a meeting place in case one of us had to leave in the middle. We cautioned the kids to use their whisper voices if they needed to talk and we practiced our whisper voices together. I told LJ that if we used any louder voices that we might scare the Sugar Plum Fairy, so she would be extra cautious. We apologized to our seat-mates in advance. If I had thought a little more ahead, I would have made them little care packages as bribes so that they wouldn’t hate us if our kids were little monsters!
The lights went down, the music started, and then the curtain came up revealing a winter wonderland. The kids were both completely amazed and silent at first. About 5 minutes into it, LJ started whispering lots of questions, which I tried to quietly and quickly explain. At that point I started a little running narration so she could stay oriented and follow the story as best as she could. When the Rat War was going on, she accidentally spoke loudly and said, “Clara bopped the rat king on the head!” The people directly around us heard her and giggled. I reminded her about whispering.
The first act flew by. We moms felt a little surprised that it was so easy. We tried to pre-empt the second act wiggles by having the kids run around during intermission. We hoped it would be enough. We were definitely going to be pushing it with a second act during a nap-less afternoon, but we were up for the challenge.
The second act was definitely harder. Both kids felt more comfortable in their surroundings. For LJ this meant that she wanted to get up and dance with the dancers in front of her. I swear she twirled through at least 3 or 4 scenes, while I kept her arms from hitting anyone or anything nearby. I was really glad we were in the last row with extra space at that point. Also, there was one dance that I hadn’t shown her on YouTube that she thought was boring (and she wasn’t shy about saying so). We pulled out treats at that point and I tried to engage her imagination about what the dancers might be thinking and feeling to get her back into the moment. It seemed to work.
All of a sudden, the performance was coming to a close. We had made it! The kids ate an entire bag of chocolate raisins and most of the gummi bears, but they did it! They loved clapping at the end and talking about what they saw.
That night, Little Jacks fell asleep at 7 pm and dreamed of Sugar Plums. She still talks about The Nutcracker every day and is now very interested in ballet.
Hopefully some of our tactics will be helpful if you are thinking about taking your toddler to a cultural event. I bet if your gut tells you that your little one is happy that you can make it a successful experience. I can’t wait until the next time LJ and I get to go on a date. It seems that the possibilities are now endless… or at least we can get the flu shot taken care of!