Ever wonder how it would feel to perform in front of 21,000 people?
Nine young dancers from Stansbury Park had that experience when they performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert earlier this month.
The local dancers in the performance were Natalie Jacobsen, 15; Allie Manning, 15; McKenna Manning 12; Madi Manning 10; Emily McBride, 12; Ashlee Sizemore, 15; Madison Stephenson, 13; Aria Thorpe, 13 and Allie Turpin, 12.
This year, the Christmas concert featured the Sesame Street Muppets, the first time the Muppets have performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The other guest artist was Santino Fontana, who is best known for being the voice of Prince Hans in the musical “Frozen.”
The event ran for four days, with 21,000 people a night filling the seats.
As with most performances, it started with auditions.
Auditions for the performance were announced at local dance studios and through flyers around the area this fall. Several local dancers decided to attend the auditions in Salt Lake City.
“We started with the first auditions in September,” Madi Manning said. “They were at a local stake center in Salt Lake and it looked like there were a lot of people there.”
The dancers had to wait a week and a half to hear if they made call-backs.
“It was sort of like the first audition, a combination of jazz and ballet,” Sizemore said. “There was some tumbling. I just kept thinking that I wasn’t good enough, or that they picked girls other than me. It was tough!”
Then there was another two-week wait for the final cast list.
“I was really nervous I wasn’t going to get in,” Madi Manning said.
But the cast list was finally announced and nine local dancers had made the cut. In total, there were 25 younger dancers, 25 older girls and 50 adult dancers in the production.
Rehearsals started in October. The girls first practiced at a local stake center building, but then the practices moved right into the Conference Center. The three groups — the choir, the orchestra and the dancers — practiced individually but then came together for a few intense final rehearsals.
The dance rehearsals were usually on Saturdays.
“Sometimes we were dancing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.” Madi Manning said. “Sometimes I even got to miss school because rehearsals went so late.”
But the girls were being well taken care of during the long days. There were buffet lunches or dinners and lots of supportive parents.
Several of the girls were in other Christmas dance performances, had drill or competition team events to attend during this time.
“It was sometimes hard to balance the two. I did miss some other dance rehearsals,” Madi Manning said. “It was totally due to our parents that we got it all done.”
The show was about an hour and a half long and all dancers appeared three times in each production. Several of the dancers also wore microphones in order to better project their voices during the singing.
Costumes were hand-made for each girl from a team of 22 seamstresses. Each girl was required to come in a unique braid.
“The costumes were itchy but they were puffy and covered with sparkles,” Stephenson said. “But the hard part was finding a unique braid to wear.”
The girls were impressed with the level of detail in the entire production.
There were stations for hair, makeup and costumes. And unlike most productions, there was a quiet energy backstage.
“If you needed your hair fixed or had a makeup issue, you just went down and they fixed it,” Madi Manning said. “And they were always there for the bows — we had these bows on the back of our costumes that needed to be fixed about every 30 seconds, but there was always someone there to help us.”
Tamra Stephenson, a mother to one of the girls, volunteered backstage at the concert.
“They were treated with just unbelievable kindness. They wanted the dancers to go on stage with the Spirit and energy that they were representing Christmas and the (LDS) Church. They wanted everyone to be happy and well taken care of,” she said. “Even as volunteers we were told to stay calm.”
Madi Manning and Madison Stephenson said one of their all-time favorite memories was of being able to dance for President Thomas S. Monson, the prophet for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All the girls are members of the LDS Church.
“It was really the biggest crowd ever. And then to have my family and friends there was really incredible,” Stephenson said.
Being around the Muppets was highlight for all the dancers.
“It was fun to be able to chat with Abby Cadabby and Rosita,” Sizemore said. “It was cool to see how it all worked and be part of that show.”
“Those puppets and workers were really energetic,” Madi Manning said. “We got to work with them in several different scenes.”
And everyone had a different favorite part.
“I loved singing the song, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ and ‘Sing a Song’ from Sesame Street,” Madi Manning said.
“My favorite memory was going in and seeing all those 21,000 seats and then dancing there and seeing all the people,” Sizemore said. “It just felt good.”
“My favorite moment was when we were singing the final number and a little girl in the front was smiling at me and she just smiled at me and was tugging on her mom’s arm,” Stephenson said. “And my smile just got even bigger.”
She said this recent performance shows the caliber of dance instruction that is available in the area.
“We have really great teachers here and they know their stuff and that shows,” she said. “When we are ready to go to auditions we get parts and it puts Tooele on the dance map of Utah.”
The concert, officially named the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, ran Dec. 11 at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
Tickets were free, but were available on a lottery basis. Parents were given two free tickets, but friends pitched in their tickets to make sure the girls got their entire families to a performance.
Part of the performance was shown as a section of “Music and the Spoken Word” the following Sunday. The entire production will be released as a DVD next year.