More than just another rendition of the 19th century ballet classic, the Creole Nutcracker was a one-time performance by young people that inspired the entire community of Lafayette, Louisiana

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The Creole Nutcracker is a modern twist on the ballet classic, by Tchaikovsky, that borrows from a variety of genres and styles. Leigha Porter and Jazmyn Jones’ creation inspired the Lafayette community to strive for their goals; it even drummed up a discussion about the importance of the arts in a child’s education.

For creators Leigha Porter and Jazmyn Jones, putting a Creole twist on The Nutcracker story was a concept close to their hearts. Enriched with a variety of dance styles and with distinct Louisianan influences unique to Creole culture, this version of The Nutcracker sought to give the community a performance they would remember and cherish. 70 children took part in the performance, but for Leigha Porter, there was so much more to it than perfecting pliés and appearing graceful; it became a form of self-expression for the children and a performance that they could truly be proud of.

An act like the Creole Nutcracker brings more awareness to the significant role that the arts play in a child’s education and how it should be available to all young people and not just those who can afford it.

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Inspiring beginnings

Leigha Porter, the artistic director of the Creole Nutcracker, is the founder of F.I.R.E Expressions Performing Arts Conservatory, a Louisianan-based dance company which aims to promote Faith, Inspiration, Relationship, and Experience. Leigha is professionally trained in ballet, modern, and jazz dance techniques, and her choreography has received many awards. However, according to Leigha herself, she, “Consider[s] [herself] an artist, an educator, and a mover that has a passion for… being inspired by others and letting my gifts inspire others as well.” While she knows how to move, teaching is what she is the most passionate about.

Just 13 or 14 years old when she taught her own class, Leigha has never lost her passion for teaching. More than 100 students have received her mentorship over the 16 years she has been teaching, and she hopes they come away with more than just perfect posture and an understanding of dance terminology. Porter strives to show how the arts can benefit character and mental wellbeing, saying: “The arts, especially dance and movement, is one way to release emotion.” This is something she discovered through her hospice work at Camp Braveheart, where dance and movement really helped grieving kids who had lost a family member.

Teaching experiences such as this shaped Leigha’s interpretation of dance, helping her to eventually find her purpose in life. Meaning lies in the power of teaching and allowing young people to take part in shows that will resonate with the community, such as the Creole Nutcracker.

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Bumps in the road

The journey to becoming an inspirational and innovative teacher, clearly, isn’t easy. While reflecting on her mindset six years ago, Leigha remembers wanting to be, “this free-spirited person”, with no ties to a career or location. Despite not initially wanting to open her own performing arts school, Leigha recognised that it was the right decision for the community as a whole and it was ultimately where her life path was taking her.

Setting up a dance school in an area saturated with so many other schools posed its own challenges and she was entirely self-funded. Leigha set about the task of drumming up interest for her school, but the classical training that she provided didn’t always excite the children in the community.

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However, Leigha’s message and end goal for her studio is what sets her school apart from the rest. Profit margins could be larger, but monetary gain has never been the driving force behind the dance classes, which is why Leigha strives to make them as affordable as possible. She said: “We just want this place to be an inspiration for whatever direction you’re going to go in your life. And hopefully it’ll [leave] a lasting impression.”

The dance school has brought about the best in the community, with parents reaching out to help wherever they can. This makes the extra care taken to create shows, such as the Creole Nutcracker, that extra bit special as it shows that beauty, energy and fun can even surface from tricky life situations.

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The spark of a dream: The Creole Nutcracker

It took three years for the idea of the Creole Nutcracker to come to fruition. And what was the end goal for creators Leigha Porta and Jazmyn Jones? To give the community their own show. Clearly, the message was heard as the one-time show quickly sold out.

This version of The Nutcracker gave underrepresented people a voice and an outlet for expression. For Leigha, it was important to use the show to reach as many kids as possible and, “Try to get more kids from different areas, different backgrounds, different cultures to come together, as one, in putting this show on”, Porter recalls being 15 before she saw an African American female on pointe and remarks how women and men of colour are scarcely seen in the field of ballet. The Creole Nutcracker gave African American children a way to express themselves and even gave them the motivation to pursue their dreams and recognise that they can belong in any field.

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More than just a classical ballet performance, the Creole Nutcracker borrowed themes from a variety of genres and has a sprinkling of African influence. Incredibly innovative, the performance represented Creole culture through music and even food; this was particularly important for Porter, as Cajun culture was more widely spoken about in the Arcadian community in which she resides.

Importantly, the performance was indicative of how inclusive dance can be: “It wasn’t even just about the performance aspect, but even the behind the scenes… we want to be able to give kids an opportunity to be a part of all those entities of putting together a show, not just a stage performance.” This is where the true sense of community arose from and why the Creole Nutcracker encapsulated so many positive values about the arts as a whole.

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Looking to the future

The Creole Nutcracker may have been a one time show in 2018, but the message and impact it left behind will live on in Lafayette. The success of the show surprised even Porter herself, but she hopes its reputation will reach more children on the performing arts spectrum to understand what they are capable of.

The arts are an underrepresented and underfunded area and many aspiring students and organisations rely on grants to keep pursuing their dream. This is what inspired Leigha and Jazmyn to start Heritage Park, a non-profit organisation that gives opportunities to enthusiastic and passionate kids who can’t afford the dance school tuition.

The Creole Nutcracker is just a steppingstone into how widely accepted and successful the arts can be in Louisiana. Leigha hopes that the arts will soon be regarded as essential to a child’s education, just as much as sports are. Halls and centres can become an environment for a child to practise their preferred skill outside of class times and reap as much enjoyment from it as possible. Whatever the future brings, the Arcadian community will always have their own Nutcracker story, which can show just how far inclusivity, innovation, and perseverance can take them.