It's about 45 minutes before show-time and the sequin-costumed children of the Betty Rich House of Ballet, so excited they seem to hover a couple inches off the ground, bounce through the sanctuary of Upton Avenue's Redeemer Lutheran Church. As they go, they toss handfuls of gold tinsel along the aisles and across the chancel.
Emotionally, these children are still in control, but just barely. Excitement - vented in spontaneous songs, dance, or just plain giggling - remains pressure cooker high. Seated in the pews, the slowly gathering audience, as yet made up of just a few parents and relatives, looks on patiently.
Tinsel deposited, the children begin to rumble across the chancel trying out their dance moves. That's a good idea. The space is smaller than was the rehearsal room and that causes problems, especially for the cart-wheelers who find themselves dangerously close to flying right off the chancel's front steps.
Not to worry, though. Outside on this cold Sunday night the wind is blowing and the snow drifting. But here inside, even the wayward tumbles are cushioned with giggles.
The good feeling comes from more than the smell of home-cooked food that rises from the church's basement, where perhaps 150 people are finishing a holiday meal. It's more than the comforting warm hiss from the sanctuary's steam-heat radiators. Tonight, thanks to the year-long effort of teacher Betty Rich, the children will present Nutcracker Christmas. For Rich and company, this is their ninth annual holiday performance.
The upcoming production itself will be enjoyable enough, but this program's real success must be measured by what the children take away from their experience. Year-round they come together once a week to dance, make friends, and learn socialization skills. Says Rich: “I teach them how to dance, but also etiquette and poise, how to sit properly, how to talk properly, how to be respectful to one another.”
Although the program started in the Old Fairgrounds neighborhood, today, because of word of mouth and Rich's weekly cable television program Step Up Toledo, students enroll from across the city.
Ultimately, all the monies collected go back to the children in one way or another. Tuition, combined with donations from community sponsors, goes toward costumes and advertising. Remaining funds are used to sponsor a summer picnic. For the holiday performance, Rich buys presents for every child who participates.
When the evening's performance finally does start, the church is mostly full. Confident that her dancers will do just fine on their own, Rich has set up her post in the back of the sanctuary. She is too far away to help much should things goes awry, but still she sings along, applies some body english when a cartwheel appears headed for the audience, and leads the applause after particularly daring leaps and tumbles.
There are a few miscues. Children bump into each other and stumble on the tiny stage. Entrances arrive too soon or too late At one point, two-year-old Miracle Dumas, the production's tiniest dancer, wanders off stage to sit on a relative's lap.
But these were minor issues. What will be remembered are the moments when the choreography went just right, the evening's positive spirit, and the broad sense of community that filled the church.
As the show winds down and the children begin their bows, proud Andraye Stenson leans over to me and points out his daughter, 3-year-old TaTyanna Miller. “She did a great job, didn't she?” he whispers. “Do you want to meet her?”
A few moments later we head toward the dressing room. Just outside we find TaTyanna in her mother's arms. Rose in hand, TaTyanna shows me her presents. “Un-huh,” she mutters, she did have a lot of fun. And yes, she wants to do it all over again.