This 'Nutcracker' gets sparkle from volunteer

For the better part of the last decade, Teresa Puckett has helped make Piedmont Dance Theatre's "The Nutcracker" shine - literally.

She's in charge of creating, maintaining and organizing the 150-plus costumes and hundreds of accessories in the company's annual holiday production. She has also helped with the company's props for a couple years.

For the last seven years, Puckett has volunteered at least 500 hours per season, which starts as early as June and ends in December. She is one of the theater's most seasoned parent volunteers.

Each season, about 60 parent volunteers contribute, and most average 10-15 hours. Kathy Wilson, another parent-volunteer who handles logistical duties, logs about 300 hours per season.

"Teresa has not only put life into PDT's production of 'The Nutcracker,' she has given me a life, thereby allowing me to focus on other aspects of the production," said the Kannapolis troupe's founder, Rebecca Massey-Wiley. "I can safely say that if she is in charge of a project, not only will it be completed, but I'll have a spreadsheet covering each aspect of it."

Puckett, a 13-year Harrisburg resident, began sewing with her two older sisters when she was 7. They all learned from their mother, a seamstress, while living in Faith, N.C..

"She's basically upgraded the entire production and made it really professional," said Wiley. "So instead of having recital-ish-looking costumes, we have custom-made, custom-designed, custom-fitted costumes that we never would have been able to afford without her doing them.

"We just really couldn't do it without her. The show really pops because of her."

Puckett's passion for sewing isn't the only reason behind the hundreds of volunteer hours spent sitting at her WWII-era Singer Golden Touch sewing machine.

She does it to stay connected with her daughter, Grace, a junior at Hickory Ridge High School, who has been in the show for the last seven years.

"I enjoy it," said Teresa. "I enjoy working with fabric and creating things. I don't do it for me. It's mainly for the kids. I just enjoy being able to fit the girls and see their faces light up.

"For them to experience performing in front of audience - and with the Salisbury Symphony - and to see their love for the art and their love for the dance grow, that's what I do it for. I do it to help them grow and learn."

The highlight for Teresa was when her daughter got the lead role of Clara in 2007, the first year the troupe performed with the Salisybury Symphony.

"Rebecca would not let me backstage," said Teresa. "She said, 'You're going to watch your daughter dance,' and that was the only time I've actually sat out in the audience and watched the performance, and she was the first Clara to dance with the symphony."

Years of memories

Grace said she's learned many valuable lessons during her seven-year stint performing in PDT's Nutcracker. She has danced the roles of a mouse, the lead marzipan and Clara.

"Since the studio is such a tight family, you really learn how to adjust yourself and your emotions through the disappointment, excitement and anxiety that goes on throughout the season," she said. "As I look back over the years, I can say that I am not only a better dancer, but a better person because I grew up here, and I consider myself still to be growing as I spend time with a beloved family of friends and mentors."

Alley Helms, a freshman at Concord High School, also will finish her eighth year with PDT's Nutcracker. She has been an angel, a mouse, a plum, a flower and Clara.

"The year I was Clara was a really great experience because it was like a dream come true for me," she said. "I danced around her as an angel for three years, and I always wondered what it would feel like to be her. Now I know. But the role that I'm most known for is the lead Chinese, which is fun and energetic, just like me."

The sense of family throughout the dancers and volunteers also stands out to Helms.

"I feel so blessed to be part of the PDT family," she said. "These past 7 years have helped me grow as a person and as a dancer. My mother has always been a volunteer with the production and this year my dad is actually in the cast and I'm finding that he's enjoying this almost as much as me."

Meredith Richardson, a sophomore at CHS, started roles with PDT's program when she was 10. She said she was shuffled into the back row at first and worked up to lead roles over the years.

"'Nutcracker' is one of my favorite times of the year. Though all the hours of rehearsal are grueling, the performances make all of the blood, tears and sweat worth it," she said.

Leah Starnes, a senior at CHS, said her part with PDT's "The Nutcracker" helped her grow.

"The production could not go on without the commitment of every dancer," Starnes said. "I spend so many hours dancing it is impossible not to form a tight friendship with everyone. I know that when I leave for college next year, I will never forget the friendships I have made over the past seven years."