For Tony Williams And The Urban Nutcracker, It's All About Trust

Tony Williams must trust me.

He must trust me a lot.

He trusts me so much that he let me appear in his Urban Nutcracker this past December in Boston.

Williams has presented the Urban Nutcracker for 16 years, so it's unlikely that I could have loused the whole thing up forever, but still.

Obviously I need to back up and explain a few things.

I've taken hundreds of dance classes over the decades--hip-hop, Latin, ballet, and so on. After almost every class, the instructor has singled me out and asked the same question:

"Is this your first dance class?"

Nureyev I'm not.

Still, I can move, and occasionally I can move gracefully. But Williams had never seen me dance, and indeed had never met me face to face prior to his agreeing to allow me to join the Urban Nutcracker cast.

That's trust.

Williams, Boston Ballet's first mixed-race dancer and the first African American to dance with that company back in the 1960s, founded the Urban Nutcracker in 2001.

He had just started a dance school in the inner city in Boston. Of the hundred kids who showed up, 20 were boys.

Williams had to figure out how he was going to get those boys on stage.

So he hit upon the idea of the Urban Nutcracker, which blended Tchaikovsky's traditional music with hip-hop, Duke Ellington, doo-wop, and other musical genres more familiar to his charges.

Duke Ellington's composition in the show is, in fact, the Nutcracker Suite.

Urban Nutcracker has since become a Boston institution, moving from its original Dorchester home to the John Hancock Hall, also known as the Back Bay Events Center, where 13 performances take place each December, including an autism-friendly version and an LGBTQ edition as well.

Ballet dancers, including professionals, perform ballet alongside the hip hop and tap dancers in the Urban Nutcracker--so it's not just a hip hop or tap ballet.

I wrote a piece about the Urban Nutcracker in November, and I thought, wouldn't it be fun to go up on stage with all those kids and dance a little bit.

Williams liked the piece I wrote, so he agreed.

The first time I met him was at the first and only rehearsal I attended.

At the rehearsal, kids of all sizes and shapes were everywhere. But they were all focused, and they were all focused on dance. And they danced amazingly well.

My job was to somehow not mess the whole thing up.

At the rehearsal, a couple of the dancers took me under their wing and showed me where I would be standing, where I would be chassé -ing, and what other stage business I would attend to in my 20-minute guest shot during the first act party scene.

I would pose for a selfie with the rest of the group, be astonished at magic tricks, converse gaily with other guests, and, think of it, dance a little.

The night of the performance, I did not really have time for backstage jitters. I actually sing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and we had just concluded our last performance of Holiday Pops an hour before call time for the ballet.

As I drove from Symphony Hall to the John Hancock building, where the theater is located, I changed out of my tux and into my costume for the ballet.

Once at the theater, I found myself surrounded by kids who were all business. They knew what they were doing, they knew about their costumes and makeup, they knew where to go to warm up, and they knew where to wait for their entrances.

It was a well-oiled machine.

It was also a happy, lively, focused machine, but perhaps that's the wrong word.

I'll tell you exactly what I found: it's a family.

The older kids look after the younger ones, and the adults are there to handle whatever concerns the kids have. There were very few adults compared to the massive number of young people ready to perform.

By this point, the performers needed little direction. They did what they needed to do, because of the trust that Tony had placed not just in me but in them.

That's what's so spectacular about the Urban Nutcracker--it's not just a great show, as professional and endearing as any Nutcracker you could hope to see, with the added benefit of the varieties of music and dance that the word "urban" implies--hip-hop, jazz, and doo-wop, blending in seamlessly with Tchaikovsky's score.

Tony Williams doesn't just teach young people to dance.

He teaches them that they are trustworthy, and that they can trust themselves.

Is there a better lesson you could provide kids?

The show began, the familiar strains of the Nutcracker filled the theater, and I waited anxiously for my 15 minutes of not quite fame; more like being a backdrop.

And then it was time. My scene began. The dancers showed me where to go, and I hit the stage, knowing that a full house was watching, including my wife and kids.

I'm happy to say that I hit my marks and did everything I was supposed to do--be an extroverted and interested guest in the party scene, pose with the group for the selfie, be dazzled by the magic show, chassé to the couch, make small talk, and ultimately, exit appropriately.

Tony said I did fine.

I'm honored by the trust Tony placed in me, but now that I've been part of the Urban Nutcracker, I understand why trusting comes to naturally to Tony Williams.

It's because trust turns out to be a phenomenal tool for getting results--not just on stage, but in the lives of the young people who have the benefit of coming under Williams' care.

And if you'll pardon the pun, for me, that's what made this Nutcracker...sweet.