This year, the 12 Days of Christmas is getting a special TEENPLICITY twist – 12 Days of TEENPLICITY! From Saturday, December 12th through Wednesday, December 23rd, we will be posting a new holiday-themed feature each day! Including interviews with this season’s merriest entertainers as well as tips for the best holiday treats, we hope this celebration will bring some joy and good cheer to all during a very tough year.
As part of this special event, the 9th Teenpliciday features an exclusive joint interview with dancers of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Jalyn Flowers (pictured right) and Kayden Porter (pictured left). The two talk about being a part of the Academy’s beloved Hot Chocolate Nutcracker every year, what they’ve learned from their time at DADA, and how they’re celebrating the holidays this year!
Had the year went according to plan, this would have been the twelfth year the Debbie Allen Dance Academy put on their beloved Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. A take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, just as the ballet has become a staple, put on every year to honor the holidays, so has the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Made up of a cast of over 200 dancers, the show takes a young girl named Kara who, after receiving a nutcracker as a Christmas present and it breaking, dreams of it coming to life and going on a journey across different lands.
While the show was not able to go on the way many would have hoped, Netflix and Shondaland’s latest documentary, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker not only tells the story of how the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (referred to as DADA) came to be but also gives a behind the scenes look at what it takes to develop and rehearse the show every year. Two of the dancers featured are Kayden Porter and Jalyn Flowers. They’ve both been a part of DADA for some time with Kayden dancing for six years and being at the academy for the same amount of time while Jalyn has been dancing for 13 years and with DADA for 11.
“I would describe [Hot Chocolate Nutcracker] as a magical take on a classic tale and an inclusive story with people that do not only look the same. It’s a group of people that are all different, that have different storylines and different ways of dancing,” Jalyn adds after Kayden explains the story of the show when the three of us talk on the phone.
One of the ways in which it makes for such a moving and loved holiday story and performance, as well as a modern take on a classic, is the way that everyone involved looks to constantly reinvent and reimagine it. “For me, I’ve done the show for 9 years and I’ve done different scenes every year, but it’s reimagined each year because Ms. Allen always enforces a stricter cast and it ends up being more of a productive show,” Jalyn explains. “Like there becomes a better fluidity throughout the scenes, the transitions become better and better every year, as well as some of the scenes have changed over the few years. Like ‘South Pole’ is fairly new as well as ‘Train’ and I feel like the inclusion of scenes like those add a different level of creativity to the show. So throughout the years of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, I’ve just seen it get better and better,” she says.
Kayden agrees. “The choreography changes sometimes with different scenes and I think it changes for the better and makes the show more fun and the audience can interact with it more,” she muses. “And it just makes it a better experience for the people that are dancing on stage and the people that are in the audience watching the show.”
The ability for those at DADA to tap into not only what the audience wants to see but what they need to grow as dancers is what keeps so many coming back not only to perform but to see the show. “I think the part that’s really fulfilling for me is just the rehearsals and the first show,” Kayden says fondly. “I don’t know, something about the first show is just really fun and cool for me because I get to show the people who came last year how the show has gotten better over the course of the months that we’ve been rehearsing the show. And it’s just fun to see how happy they get when they see their favorite scene come on.”
Jalyn reflects on the power of the rehearsals as well. “I think the rehearsals are by far the most fulfilling part of the show. Just because everyone gets to experience each other’s energies and we’re all working hard towards this one main goal.” While both Kayden and DADA director Ms. Karen McDonald also give praise to the feeling of the first show, Jalyn notes the specialness of the last show of the season as well. “The balance of the last show is always the most emotional for me just because every year it’s gonna be someones last Hot Chocolate so seeing your friends graduate and move on past DADA is really important and a really emotional point just because DADA has become so much of a family for all of us. So the last show is really important. It’s like a culmination of all the stuff you’ve put towards your dance career coming to an end and you’re moving forward to something new,” she explains.
Dancers of all ages and experiences bring the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker to life. Different numbers require different skill levels and styles of dance that the dancers get to spend all year at the Academy training in. That said, the auditions are still an important moment to show the faculty and staff just what they’re working with and what you can do. Although Kayden and Jalyn explain that some numbers, such as Bollywood, require a certain age range given the work it requires and the time commitment as shown in Dance Dreams. Another number is ‘Candy Cane’ which is an all-boys hip hop number. But a lot of the dancers find themselves in multiple numbers throughout the show so they really get to flex their training and skills.
Dancers are often asked about their first Nutcracker memory. Performing or seeing the show is assumed to be one of the milestones of any dancer, especially those in ballet. But, with Hot Chocolate Nutcracker it’s something that’s so significant and influential enough that people from all over have traveled to California in order to see and participate in the show.
“I remember my first [Hot Chocolate Nutcracker] memory because I remember when I first got cast in the show, I think that I was like 8 and I was put in ‘Toyland.’ I just remember I was the Rag Doll in ‘Toyland’ and all the people that were working backstage, they would always know me as the Rag Doll and every time they saw me, they would just wave at me because I had the funniest costume with the wig and the red lipstick and it was just really fun,” Kayden laughs as she looks back.
When Jalyn looks back on her first memory, she says it feels like a long, long time ago. Like Kayden, her first scene was ‘Toyland’ where she played Dorothy. She recalls the moment with the big teddy bear that walks around in the scene who at the time was played by Dougie. “I remember he was probably the first choreographer I had ever interacted with during Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” she says. “I remember thinking ‘Toyland’ was just really, really hard like thinking it was the most difficult scene I had ever done and it was a lot of work. I was with my two best friends and were just in there like trying so hard thinking this was the most intense thing we had ever done,” Jalyn looks back. “I just remember thinking that I really wanted to become better and be in more scenes but my biggest memory was thinking that ‘Toyland’ was the hardest scene ever.” Since then, Jalyn has gone on to dance the lead of Kara multiple times as well as dance the role of the Fairy Queen.
They want something new, something fresh, and the kids at DADA can bring that to the table. – Kayden Porter
With how much training and rehearsing is required of them, the show is inherently embedded in the way that they celebrate Christmas. “I feel like every September I know Hot Chocolate auditions are coming and I will be rehearsing from September till December when the show happens and it’s really empty if I don’t do Hot Chocolate,” Kayden says when the two agree on seeing the show as a tradition in their lives. “Yeah, it’s really become a tradition and my whole family loves the show, [they] love to come and see the show, and I know for some people, like I know some of my friends have started coming to the show because they know I’m in the show and their family loves to see the show too. So I think it’s a tradition for anyone who goes and sees the show that first year and they know that they wanna come the next year.”
“Hot Chocolate has really become important in my Christmas tradition just because I’ve done it for so long my whole family really gets involved,” Jalyn adds. “Every single year my mom volunteers backstage, my grandma volunteers backstage, it’s really an important part of our Christmas traditions just because every year it’s something different either I’m in a new scene or I have a new role,” she explains. “Also rehearsals take up a majority of the time between September until the end of December so there’s not much room for other traditions but we wouldn’t have it any other way just because it’s so much fun and something I can celebrate with my entire family.”
Being such an important part of their lives and something they get to look forward to every year, this year meant that the holidays felt like they were missing something. When I ask the two if it felt weird not being able to focus their time on the show this year they both share that it is. “It was like nothing for me to do here and I was just like home and bored and really wishing that there was something else for me to do to fill up the time where I was doing Hot Chocolate,” Kayden starts noting that the extra time and boredom made her realize how much she missed working on the show. “I really missed the long rehearsals and seeing my friends and getting yelled at for not knowing choreography,” both she and Jalyn laugh. “I don’t know, it was just a real tradition that I love.”
“I agree with Kayden, having heard that we couldn’t do Hot Chocolate this year was kind of a letdown just because it’s a really important part of my life. It’s been so long since I haven’t had a Hot Chocolate that I had no idea what to do with myself,” Jalyn adds. “Usually, it’s right before finals week so I’m not as stressed over finals just because I’m not thinking about it all the time but this year, I have nothing really to do, I’m just stressing out about school all the time. I can’t really go and see my friends, I miss the long rehearsals, and I miss being in the theater, being backstage, tech…I miss the whole Hot Chocolate situation,” Jalyn concludes.
While it’s not exactly the same thing, you can get a complete sense of community and just how much they enjoy working on and creating the show when you watch Dance Dreams. You also see just how important the work that DADA and a show like Hot Chocolate Nutcracker does for dance. The faculty and staff are made up of so many dancers and performers with impressive credits and experience in the industry looking to empower the students just as much as they are to teach them.
I ask the two if since being apart of an environment like DADA, have they looked at the dance industry differently and what they not only expect from it but demand from it at well especially given the limiting ways that the dance industry decides who should be the faces of dance. Kayden immediately responds yes. “I look at ballet companies and I mostly see thin, white women that are the faces of the ballet industry. And then I see people that teach at DADA like Lauren Anderson and it’s really an inspiration to me if I wanted to be a ballerina,” she says of barrier-breaking former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet. “Complexions was a big inspiration to me because I get to see different ethnicities and people of color doing the stuff that I want to do when I’m older and it’s something that I really want to see more of in the industry.”
“I feel like after being at DADA, it kinda conditions you to think you can do whatever you want which you really can,” Jalyn follows up. “And it gives you a family and a support system that allows you to do what it is that you wanna do. Like I’ve been to several different dance conventions things and different summer conventions and it’s been me as the only African American in the entire class and that’s been really difficult to come to terms with is that everywhere I go is not gonna be like DADA,” she admits. “I think there should be more diversity within the dance community and that everyone and every body type should be appreciated, not just within white ballerinas. I think DADA is doing a great job spreading the message that anyone can do anything, not just the people who fit the type that was the standard at one point.”
It was one of the main purposes of Ms. Allen starting DADA in 2000. Dealing with microaggressions from instructors and a repeated lack of diversity on stage when she was coming up in the dance world, she mentions in Dance Dreams how one of the final straws was her daughter taking dance classes and an instructor using Alvin Alley as an insult and way to discourage her abilities. The idea that to be a Black dancer or study at a Black institution meant that your dance abilities were lesser was something that Ms. Allen knew wasn’t true but also know she had the platform and the means to combat.
The dancers at DADA get the opportunity to learn dance from instructors of all races and sizes who know what it’s like to have been shut down or excluded because of shallow (and often racist or size-ist) views such as what led Ms. Allen to start the academy. As Ms. McDonald told me in our interview, it means that they make sure to instill some tough love on the dancers. “I feel like every one of our teachers has given us advice. But I know that Ms. McDonald has really helped me accept myself, my body, my skin color, and to not be afraid to show who I am when I’m dancing because what people really want is someone different and not just the same people over and over again with the same dances,” Kayden explains.
“They want something new, something fresh, and the kids at DADA can bring that to the table,” she concludes confidently.
Jalyn agrees with her. “Almost every single one of our teachers has a story of how they came about in the dance community. And I think all of them are very inspiring, especially Ms. Allen herself just because getting into dance was so difficult for her. She had to do so many things that were out of the norm,” she notes pointing out the level of obstacles Ms. Allen had to cross to make her dream a reality. “I think it’s really inspiring to see how much she’s accomplished even though she went through at a time where it was more difficult than it is now. She always tells us to learn everything and do everything just because it’s always gonna be a lot more difficult for someone who looks like us to get a part that it is for someone that’s white and thin,” Jalyn says matter-of-factly. “So, we always have to be good at everything and know what we’re doing and pay attention to all aspects whether it’s just being in the chorus, the lead role, or the lights person, you have to be prepared to do anything just because it’s gonna be 10x harder for you to get that role.”
That also means that the two, like all dancers, had to learn how to deal with rejection and lost opportunities. It’s something that’s not easy, but the two of them take it in stride. “I feel like I’ve been rejected my whole life so I don’t know,” Kayden shares. “I’ve stopped caring, I feel like if they don’t want me for a specific role, it used to really hurt my feelings but now I don’t really mind because I know, like, how people think these days and how it is in the industry. I just say if it was meant for me, I would get it and if I don’t then it wasn’t.”
It’s something Jalyn follows as well. “As my mom has always said, what’s for you will be for you and what’s not is not. So before, I would always beat myself up if I didn’t get a role or I didn’t get a part, but then I realized the parts I have gotten parts that were meant for me and I will continue to get parts that are meant for me and I wouldn’t want someone else’s spot. You know, I work hard to get where I need to get and if I don’t achieve whatever goal it was that time then maybe it wasn’t my time. Or I’ve accepted the fact that you can’t get everything, you can’t win at everything, you can’t accomplish everything, and I’ve accepted that and I’ve learned to move past that and appreciate everything I have been given,” she reflects.
The two are hard workers. You kind of have to be to get through DADA. As well as incredibly driven and aspiring towards improvement. When I ask them both what dance styles they’d like to get better at, they both laugh saying there’s a lot of room for growth for the both of them.
“Yeah, there’s a lot,” Jalyn said.
“I need to get better at pointe and ballet,” Kayden follows up after the two finish laughing. “I mean, there’s a lot to choose from. I’ll say two; I need to get better at pointe and African because [with] pointe and ballet, I’m so stiff and then African, it’s just hard for me to loosen up. I don’t know,” she shrugs. “There’s just a lot to choose from for me to get better at. I need to get better at everything.”
“Same,” Jalyn chimes in. “I need to improve in all styles but I feel like I’ve spent a majority of my life on technical things like ballet and modern so I would like to get better at, like, tap or hip hop or African, but it’s hard for me to–like Kayden said–loosen up and try those new things.”
Just be prepared to work, but also be prepared to embrace all the opportunities that come with it. – Jalyn Flowers
Aside from their work in DADA, their dancing skills have gotten cameos in other projects as well including Kayden making an appearance on an episode of Raven’s Home and Jalyn appearing on This is Us. Looking back on when their interests in dance first began, neither of them can remember a specific thing, dance was just something that was a part of them and further confirmed when they entered DADA.
“I just know that my momma told me that ever since I was like 4, I always begged her to take me to dance,” Kayden says recounting her first experience in dance. “I know the first dance class I took was at Lula Washington and I remember being in the classroom and getting yelled at and then I didn’t wanna dance anymore.” Luckily, her mom had other ideas. “She took me to Ms. Allen and I started dancing and I loved it. I just thought that all the teachers were like, I thought they were like goddesses,” she exclaims. “Like they were so long and their lines were so beautiful! And I remember my favorite teacher was Ms. Kathy, she was always really funny and really nice and she just helped me. Like she was–even though I’m not really good at tap–she was like the one reason I still tried to do better at tap.”
“I don’t remember an exact moment like the first time I was ever really inspired but I do know that my grandmother put me in dance just because I had always been dancing, whether I was in my high chair eating or just sitting watching TV,” Jalyn looks back. “My first dance concert was also at Lula Washington, I was probably one of the smallest ones in there. But I do know that at my first dance class, I did cry in the middle of the floor,” she says with a little laugh. “But it’s gotten way better since then, especially since I’ve moved to DADA. And everything just fell into place after I transferred to Ms. Allen’s studio,” she concludes.
Getting to see the beauty of dance through watching Dance Dreams and how passionate and excited everyone is even when it’s hard and feels impossible can not only be inspiring but hopefully an entryway for many would-be dancers to finally take that jeté. Both Kayden and Jalyn want to stress however that while being at DADA is a fun and good/welcoming environment, anyone starting out also needs to know that they have to be prepared to put in the work and learn discipline. “They really see the potential in you and so they just want you to grow to your fullest potential so they don’t wanna see you giving up on what they think you’re capable of,” Kayden says. “So, just be prepared to not, I don’t know, it’s not always like a super fun dance time, it can be super intense like there’s stuff that’ll make you cry, make you want to run out, but you just gotta push through because, in the end, the shows are really fun to do.”
Kayden also quotes Ms. Allen saying, “Dancers are the smartest people and they can do anything.”
“So eventually, you’ll be able to do anything that you want to do,” she states matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, after watching Dance Dreams, just be prepared to work. That’s a majority of it is the work and the determination to get better at whatever it is whether it’s dancing or just becoming a better person because Ms. Allen breeds great people and great dancers,” Jalyn adds. “I feel like if you train at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, you learn respect, you learn time management, you learn how to work under pressure, so it’s–like Kayden said–it’s not just all fun and games, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. Like she said, a lot of stuff that might make you wanna cry and might make you wanna give up, but part of the whole experience is pushing through all the hardships and the miles and reaching those milestones in dance, whether it’s moving to a new level or performing in your first show. Just be prepared to work, but also be prepared to embrace all the opportunities that come with it,” Jalyn reminds.
And with DADA, there are many opportunities they get to experience from traveling all over the world to perform to working with other dance academies and even inviting Cardi B to their studio to teach her ballet.
Without having to perform Hot Chocolate Nutcracker this year, Kayden and Jalyn knew their holidays this year was going to be different already. But, even amidst the holidays being different this year, their families are still finding safe and enjoyable ways to celebrate. “For my family, we usually do a little vacation, we’re not gonna do a vacation but we do have a tradition where like we’re not allowed to watch any new Christmas movies without the whole family, so we are watching like two Christmas movies every day and like drinking hot cocoa and making cookies,” Kayden shares. “[With] Christmas, we’re still social distancing from the rest of our family and opening our presents separately at home. But it’ll still be fun, though,” she says looking on the positive side.
“For our family, my mom is still working and stuff so I’ve been spending a lot more time with my grandmother. So this year, we actually decorated the outside of the house for the first time, there’s lights up,” Jalyn says amazed at the accomplishment. “We got a hot tub so I guess hot cocoa in the hot tub will be our new tradition for the year. Yeah, no we’ve all just been kinda in our separate areas this year because of covid, there are not too many big traditions going on, but the little ones I think,” Jalyn says closing us out, “are the ones that matter the most.”
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is available to stream now on Netflix.