There’s something thrilling about the father-daughter dance that just about every little girl dreams of. It’s that emotional, passage-of-time moment at a wedding which, if you’re fortunate enough to experience it, it’s magical.
For 11-year-old Severn Davies and her father, Matt, they’ve gotten a jump on savoring what it’s like to dance together already, albeit in a different—yet just as magical and emotional—sort of way.
This past weekend the Wilton father-and-daughter pair danced onstage in the New England Academy of Dance’s (NEAD) annual series of performances of the ballet classic, “The Nutcracker.” Severn, who has been dancing since the age of three, won the coveted lead role of Little Clara. As NEAD tradition dictates, the father of the girl who dances the role gets to appear onstage as well, portraying one of the party guests in Act One.
For Matt, who has never danced—really ever—it was an eye-opening experience on many levels.
“We all try to look through our children’s eyes at the world, and it just felt like an amazing opportunity to step into that world as much as possible. Particularly for a father and a daughter, because especially in Wilton, it’s a very sporty town and a lot of the dads are off doing football, baseball, what have you. The whole learning experience, for me, just being able to go on stage and do something you normally wouldn’t be able to do, was incredible.”
Matt said he gained a new appreciation for all the things his first-born daughter was capable of achieving and doing, and it was a moment he relished taking a very active part in.
“There are seven or eight dads in the scene, all dads whose daughters dance in the school’s [pre-professional] company. These are all men who now know so much about ballet through their daughters. You have a daughter, and she starts doing something seriously. You see your little girl doing things you couldn’t imagine being able to do. When your child starts doing things really well, that you can’t do, and you realize, Wow! How it’s their first step to independence for both of you. It’s kind of a letting go process. Being on stage with Severn and doing that, it’s sort of prolonging the letting go for a little while.”
Matt, in turn, helped Severn learn about trying to convincingly portray someone onstage very different from herself, which she said is true for her and her ‘Clara’ character.
“My dad was telling me the other day you kind of can’t be yourself playing the character, you have to get into the person’s mind and act how that character would act. I know that I would do one thing, but how would she do it? Young Clara is very much trying to be an adult, but she also still really loves being with her friends and being a kid. I’m still happy just being a kid.”
Winning the part was a huge accomplishment for Severn and well worth celebrating. “It was a really big deal. At first I thought, ‘I’m not going to get it.’ There was this other girl who was really, really good and I thought she was going to get it. So when I checked online [when they posted the roles] and saw that I got it, I just screamed, ‘Oh My Gosh!’ and I started running in circles all around the house.”
Added Matt, “She was kind of crying and she said, ‘I’ve been wanting this role my whole life!’”
She’s not kidding, though—Severn has dedicated many long hours to hone her craft and to make her performance the best it could be. Dancing five days a week, with rehearsals lasting all day until ten at night as performance weekend neared, she remained dedicated, knowing the folklore she was upholding—symbolized in large part by the iconic costume nightgown Severn wore as Little Clara.
“That dress has been passed down from dancer to dancer, from Clara to Clara for years. There are girls who are now out of college who wore that exact dress. So it’s this amazing tradition,” said Severn’s mom, Lucy. “When she’s dressed in the dress and waiting back stage, little girls just sort of come up and touch the sleeve, it’s like this magical thing.”
“It’s like a wedding dress for girls,” added Severn.
Lucy had her own heart-tugging moments as a mother who watched her daughter literally transform before her eyes. She described watching Severn portray Clara as little girl desperate to grow up, and find a hero prince in the Nutcracker.
“Because of the symbolism of the story, you can’t even believe you’re watching your daughter on stage act out this discovery of herself, and of a hero, and so many themes—of growing up, becoming a woman, and still being a child. And watching your own daughter act that out! Even physically I’m so nervous, because she has to jump twice. She has to jump into The Nutcracker’s arms—he catches her with one hand and he has a sword the other and she curls up into his arms. Emotionally, I’m terrified that he’s going to miss [the catch]. But what’s so amazing is she just leaps, and he pulls her out of the air. It is so overwhelming, I just lose it each time. He is her Nutcracker. He blows her kisses, he protects her. As a mom, it’s just incredible to watch.”
In the NEAD production, the moment ‘Clara’ transforms onstage, both the young and older Claras dance the same steps across the stage together. From the audience, in some ways, Lucy saw the future: “It’s almost too much to watch as her mom.”
Girls who have danced the role before Severn have gone on to continue dancing professionally, and one even dances in the New York City Ballet. Getting immersed in the dance culture and learning about what might await their daughter has been amazing for both Matt and Lucy.
Lucy worked hard in the organized chaos backstage, helping Severn with multiple costume changes and getting her stage makeup and hair ready, as well as pitching in to assist other dancers.
Matt enjoyed getting into his role, although he couldn’t believe how much they trusted a novice like him.
“What’s surprised me is how involved my role actually is. My character’s name is Herr Werner von Dutweiller, and I have to be this arrogant Victorian gent. [laughs] I had to figure out how an arrogant Victorian gent would be! It’s not just standing around, there’s a minuet, there’s a lot of choreography and timing, and I was kind of terrified when they started saying, ‘You do this, you do that…’ Whenever there’s something to learn and you think, ‘There’s no way I could ever do that.’ And then you do it? It just opens up a little piece of your brain that you can’t really close, and it’s kind of a nice learning experience.”
While Matt’s character doesn’t really interact with Severn’s onstage, there is one moment at the very start of the ballet as the curtains rise, when Young Clara enters and dances around all the ‘party parents’ frozen in place, including Matt.
“I keep thinking I should try to reach out and touch her, but it probably isn’t a good idea. But she brushes by, and I just…it’s not even a feeling you can put into words.”
Severn teases her dad, whose light red hair and beard require him to wear stage makeup to darken his eyebrows and sideburns, something necessary in the bright lights onstage. “He comes up from the makeup room and his eyebrows are so big!” she laughed.
She took a moment before answering a question about what it’s like to dance on stage and have your dad onstage at the same time. “It’s very…strange. Because you’re onstage and you’re dancing and then you turn around and…[surprised look] there’s my dad. Wait! There’s my dad!” she laughed.
Matt laughed along with her, and added, “As long as she didn’t say it was embarrassing!”
A family that laughs together, stays together. But a family that dances together, makes magic.