WILMINGTON, N.C. — The annual Christmas tradition of "The Nutcracker" is rolling around as usual with Wilmington's Ballet Company, but this year their executive director extended the casting call all the way to Charlotte. 

What You Need To Know

  • Sixteen dancers from A Chance to Dance will join the professional company and other local students in this year's "Nutcracker"

  • The ballet will feature typically developing dancers and those with varying abilities

  • The Wilmington Ballet Company has been performing for over 20 years

Not only does she love her job as a dance teacher, but the executive director of the Wilmington Ballet Company, Aunika Browne, has always had a soft spot in her heart for kids with different abilities. That passion grew out of having to walk a mile in their shoes. 

Aunika Browne works with a student in 'The Nutcracker.'

“I actually spent some time myself in a wheelchair from an illness and it's what actually brought me into teaching dance because I had to stop my own professional career because of physical ailment,” Browne said. 

When she saw the dancers from A Chance to Dance perform at a competition over a year ago, she saw the talent and life they brought to the stage and immediately asked if they would be interested in being part of this year's show. 

“The passion that just comes out of every one of them is amazing and it was really inspirational to see that,” Browne said. “I approached their director that day ...and her face lit up and she was so excited and she said they had been waiting for the opportunity.”

She already works to break down the stereotypical image of a dancer in the professional company, so giving these kids the spotlight they deserve was too easy. 

“We really try to embrace and include all different body types because once again what's on the outside doesn't necessarily define what you can contribute,” Browne said. “Maybe they don't have the attention span or they don't have typical neuropathways. It doesn't matter because we can adapt to them and that's part of what this means — we can be adaptive and we can include everybody.”

Dancers with The Wilmington Ballet Company rehearse.

The show always includes local dancers and community members, and this year there will be 68 student dancers from the Wilmington area joined by the 16 traveling all the way from Charlotte for the two-day show. 

Getting the chance to perform on a stage with the professional company is a dream come true for many of these young ballerinas, but it's a full circle experience for many of the adults as well. 

“We specifically plan a time where they have VIP meet and greet with all the professional dancers,” Browne said. “And they get pictures and hugs from all the professionals, and that to me is a really important part, and the professionals I think like that part too because it means a lot that they're bringing inspiration to the kids.”

The show is the culmination of months of hard work on everyone's part and Browne hopes that all her dancers both big and small can take the chance to soak it in and live in the moment. 

“I want mostly just to share this message of inclusion and community and positivity in a time where there really isn't as much as people would like to see,” Browne said.