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Eden Johnson-Woods and J.T. Herndon perform a scene from The Nutcracker. I thought I would never like it, but I’d venture a guess it’s even harder than football, J.T. says of ballet. (Sarah Lane,The Washington Post) 2015

By Bettina Lanyi
The Washington Post
December 13, 2015


[Manassas, Virginia, USA] – J.T. Herndon was selling coffee and hot cocoa with his Boy Scout troop at the Haymarket Day Parade two years ago when Manassas Ballet Theatre costumer Christina Brooks made the boys an offer. She told them if they tried out for the professional ballet company’s “Nutcracker” performance, she would buy some coffee.

“I was skeptical,” said the strapping 13-year-old, then a sixth-grade student who was very much into football. But J.T. auditioned for a role as a soldier, and he said he liked it so much he continued taking classes after the show wrapped.

When football tryouts rolled around the following year, J.T.’s coach pulled his mother aside and asked what accounted for his improvement. “He was asking my mom, ‘What did you do?’ ” J.T. said. The footwork he had developed in ballet had boosted his agility and speed on the field. “And when I jumped up to get the ball, that helped a lot because of all the jumps I did” in ballet.

But the Metz Middle School student’s football days were numbered. Last year, J.T. decided to increase his focus on ballet to about 30 hours of classes and private instruction a week, and to stop playing football altogether. “After football, I would come straight here and have to change . . . and jump in class,” he said. “They’re both really physical activities, and then I would be so tired. I had to choose one or the other, so I chose this.”

J.T. is rehearsing with the other dancers for this year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” which will be performed from Dec. 17 to 23 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. This year, J.T. will play Fritz with one of the company’s two casts, and the roles of lead soldier and a boy in the party scene for the other.

“I never, in a million years, thought this was something he would do,” said Shelby Morton, J.T.’s mother. “His life was football, Boy Scouts, tae kwon do. I have told him all his life, ‘Whatever it is you choose to do, as long as you do it heart and soul, I will support you 100 percent.’ Never did I dream it would be dance, but I couldn’t be more proud of him that he’s found his niche.”

What got J.T. hooked? “The dancing itself — all the jumps and everything,” he said, pointing in particular to the challenge of dancing pas de deux with a partner. “And I really like the partnering aspect — when I figured out I could do lifts and everything — that’s really fun. You kind of have to know each other a lot, so that you do really well together.”

Sara Ordway, J.T.’s instructor and a principal dancer with the Manassas Ballet, said J.T.’s focus and determination to improve are his standout qualities. “He has natural talent, but the way he approaches it with his mind — he could go as far as he wants to with it,” Ordway said. “For an American boy at his age who doesn’t have any background in dance — it’s a miracle.”

Amy Grant Wolfe, Manassas Ballet’s artistic director, said it can be tough to draw boys to dance. “American society thinks of ballet for very little girls, period,” Wolfe said, adding that changing the cultural perception about ballet is a gradual process.

“I’ll bring people in the studio so they can see the athleticism that’s needed to do ballet,” she said. “Once they do that, everything changes in a moment and they see that, ‘Oh, ballet is also a sport.’ They’ll see our company men jump . . . off the floor and jumping cleanly, not just to get a basket or something, and to lift the women like they’re light as feathers.”

J.T., who said he has faced teasing at school over his decision to pursue dancing, has also found role models in the older boys and male dancers in the company.

His advice for boys considering ballet? “Try it. Just try it,” he said. “I thought I would never like it, but I’d venture a guess it’s even harder than football. With football, there’s a limit to what you can do. But when you’re dancing, you really have no limit. Because you can get better and better and better.”


Copyright 2015 The Washington Post


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