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Senior citizens, special needs groups enjoy 'Nutcracker'

Gabrielle Cascio, 10, of Ronkonkoma, who plays Clara,

Gabrielle Cascio, 10, of Ronkonkoma, who plays Clara, shares the stage with Tanya Trombly, of Manhattan, who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy in Ballet Long Island's production of "The Nutcracker". (Dec. 7, 2011) Credit: Erin Geismar

Even before the curtains parted, the patter of ballet shoes running across a wooden stage behind them stirred up emotion in the packed crowd gathered to watch a community production of “The Nutcracker.”

The guests for whom the ballet was being performed -- members of a handful of senior citizen and special-needs groups -- began to whisper excitedly to one another, but quickly quieted as the lights dimmed and a young ballerina took the stage.

At Ballet Long Island, a nonprofit dance studio in Ronkonkoma, dancers perform a daytime ballet for the public once a month, typically for populations like those gathered Wednesday for “The Nutcracker.”

“Everyone is always impressed,” said Debra Punzi, owner of Ballet Long Island, noting the lackluster, industrial atmosphere of the studio in contrast to the bright, cheerful performances.

She said the monthly daytime performances -- at a group rate of $4 per ticket -- are a special opportunity to spread the joy and wonder that ballet brings.

“It’s really important that people who never have an opportunity to see ballet get to see it,” she said. “And they get to see it in an intimate setting. It’s something beautiful to do on a Wednesday.”

The dance company performs other ballets throughout the year, including “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sleeping Beauty” -- but those who attended said there’s something special about seeing “The Nutcracker” at this time of year, even for those who have seen it many times.

“I’ve seen it three or four times professionally,” said Elizabeth Wilson, 89, who attended with a group from Somerset Gardens Assisted Living Facility in Plainview. “This was excellent. The dancers were all very good.”

Christine Arnone, of Seaford, attended the ballet with a group from United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau County. She said has always loved the story of the "Nutcracker."

“I’ve only seen it on TV,” she said. “Today, I think we saw a very talented group of dancers. It was a very unique experience.”

Jo Ann Cascio’s 10-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, played the role of Clara, the little girl in the ballet who receives the Nutcracker as a Christmas gift.

As the curtains closed, she cried.

Cascio, of Ronkonkoma, said her daughter played a smaller role in "The Nutcracker" years ago, but to see her in this role was an emotional experience.

“I love to see her enjoying what she does,” she said. “She amazes me every day.”

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