It took 36 years, but in 2017 Gwinnett Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker will feature an exciting “first.” GBT’s Nutcracker 2017 will feature two young African American ballerinas in the lead role of Sugar Plum, a first for Gwinnett’s oldest performing non-profit organization which has presented The Nutcracker to regional audiences since 1981.

Rachael Graham, 15, and Sasha West, 16, are two seemingly typical young ladies on the surface. Yet both devote their lives to become professional ballerinas, and both have landed the ultimate dream role: Sugar Plum in “The Nutcracker.”

Graham and West will be performing this coveted part, among other lead roles, in GBT’s “Nutcracker,” December 1st - 17that the Infinite Energy Theater in Duluth. 4 performances are presented Fridays through Sundays, plus outreach shows. Details for outreach shows and tickets can be purchased by visiting or call 770-626-2464.

The two young artists are not the only African American dancers with lead roles in GBT’s “Nutcracker” this year. As GBT’s student body becomes increasingly diverse, the 2017 “Nutcracker” also features additional African American ballerinas in such prominent roles as “Snow Queen,” “Arabian” and “Dewdrop.”

Rachael Graham is an Honor Student at Providence Christian Academy where she is Student Council President of her class. West is a sophomore at Brookwood High School where she is an Honor Student. How these young women manage scholastic achievement with their dance schedule reflects their commitment. One does not receive the role of “Sugar” without hours of disciplined training and mental focus.

“A typical day for me includes taking ballet and other dance classes from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Monday through Friday,” says West. Preparing for Nutcracker, some of this time is given to rehearsals.

Both young women follow the same schedule, and Saturdays are no different. Dance classes are 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Then it’s time for rehearsals until 6:00 p.m.

Graham says, “I don’t usually begin my homework until at least 8:30 p.m. on week nights, which calls for long nights and staying up late.”

Graham was speechless when she discovered her Nutcracker casting. “Finding out that I was Sugar Plum was kind of surreal. I didn’t expect to be even considered for that role. I was in the Chick-Fil-A ordering line when I saw the cast list, so by the time I got to the cash register to order, I couldn’t even make words come out of my mouth; I was so shocked!”

Both young ladies plan for a future in dance. They have already been selected for, and participated in, prestigious national summer programs. West spent the past two summers at American Ballet Theatre in NYC. Graham studied at Charlotte Ballet and was accepted at Alvin Ailey as well as numerous ABT programs nation-wide.

“I definitely want to pursue dance as a career,” says West. She has her sights on Pacific Northwest Ballet or continued study at Julliard. “My dream job would be to teach and choreograph all forms of dance in Los Angeles,” she says. Graham hopes to travel with a touring company and says, “My ultimate dream is to perform on Broadway!”

Both offer advice for young dancers of all backgrounds. “Go for it! Stay true to yourself,” says Graham. West says, “Put your heart into every moment and never doubt your capabilities!”

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Photo Credit: Holley Calmes

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