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'Nutcracker' anniversary nears
Sawnee Ballet marks 20th milestone
ballet WEB 1
Joanie Stewart leads a recent rehearsal for an upcoming “Nutcracker” production at the Sawnee School of Ballet. - photo by Autumn Vetter

At a glance

• What: 20th anniversary performance of “The Nutcracker” by Sawnee Ballet Theatre

• When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15; 8 p.m. Dec. 16; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 17; and 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 18.

• Where: South Forsyth High School Performing Arts Center

• Cost: $16

• For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

A dozen or so young girls moved in unison, all wearing matching leotards and tights, their hair pulled back in buns.

At the side of the mirrored room, Joanie Stewart ran the stereo, starting and stopping their music.

She then moved to the middle of the room to offer them suggestions for improvements to their dance.

Together, the girls and Stewart raised their arms high over their heads.

After the rehearsal, she complimented them all on their efforts, knowing each by her first name.

The rehearsal was one of many in preparation of this year’s production of “The Nutcracker” by the Sawnee Ballet Theatre.

The show begins its 20th anniversary run Dec. 15 at South Forsyth High School’s Performing Arts Center.

Stewart, who in 1990 founded the theatre’s parent organization, the Sawnee School of Ballet, said the production has been a labor of love over the years for her and her students.

“Every year is different,” she said. “When students do ‘The Nutcracker’ there’s something intangible about it. The students change. It’s the first time they’re a part of something that’s so much bigger than they are.”

One family knows very well what the Christmas production is all about.

The Taylors have nine children, all of whom have participated in the show in some way or another over the years.

Carman Taylor said when her family moved to Forsyth County in 1995 from the Midwest, she figured dance wouldn’t be a possibility for her children.

“But someone told us, ‘Before you give up on it, you need to meet Miss Joanie,’” Taylor said.

Ever since, she said, all her children have taken lessons at the ballet school and performed in “The Nutcracker.”

She herself has taken part in the show for the past several years.

“Since I had a performing arts background, I’ve danced as an adult in the show every year since 1996, except for a couple of years when I was pregnant,” Taylor said.

Stewart, she said, has had a huge impact on her children’s lives, in particular her 18-year-old son, Gregory, who dances as a professional ballet performer with the North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Gregory Taylor said Stewart and the Sawnee ballet organization were great inspirations.

“The school is great because there is such a wide variety of different teachers,” he said. “Miss Joanie was a huge inspiration to me. She’s a fantastic teacher.”

Former student Jessica Shrout echoed those sentiments.

A biology instructor at Brenau University in Gainesville, Shrout said she still loves dance. So much so she will return to “The Nutcracker” this year in a small role.

“I was one of Miss Joanie’s first students,” Shrout said. “I’m really happy to help out this year. It’s not a heavy role, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Shrout performed as a student in the first Nutcracker performance in 1992.

While she hasn’t performed in any of the productions since she stopped being a ballet company member in 2000, she’s always kept the tradition near to her heart.

“I’ve been to every show all these years,” she said.

Stewart said much has changed since the first performance.

Back then, the ballet school was housed in a small, white office building space on Buford Dam Road.

Six years ago, a new, much larger space was obtained on Canton Highway.

The new studio has allowed for many more students to take part in the school, its annual recitals and “The Nutcracker.”

“That first year, our whole studio was the size of one of our rooms here,” Stewart said. “The first year we had 30 students, today we have over 500.”

Developing the area’s primary ballet school and company brought some challenges over the years, such as losing its performance space with the closure of the Sawnee Arts Center in 2005.

However, Stewart said teaching hundreds of students the art of ballet and other forms of dance has been a pleasure.

“It’s been so rewarding to work with all the children and meet all the families,” Stewart said. “It’s been a great experience.”

They are quick to return those feelings.

“This gave my kids regular physical activity and a chance for social involvement,” said Carmen Taylor, adding that those were important since she home-schools all her children.

“It also became such a confidence builder for each of them, regardless of their personalities. Some are introverts, some are extroverts, but it helped them all and gave them a calming focus.”

Added Shrout: “Doing something like dance, especially under the leadership of someone like Miss Joanie, gives you so many skills that you can use in all aspects of life — patience, dedication and hard work.”