Larke Johnson in rehearsal. Courtesy The Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" Has a New Role for Dancers With Disabilities

Marie and Franz have a new guest at their Christmas Eve party this year. Emma Lookatch and Larke Johnson, both dancers in the Adaptive Dance Program at Joffrey Academy of Dance: Official School of The Joffrey Ballet, are alternating in the new role of Worker Girl. It is a permanent part created specifically for students with disabilities in Christopher Wheeldon's version of The Nutcracker at The Joffrey Ballet.


Wheeldon's production, which premiered in 2016, is set in Chicago in 1892 right before the first World's Fair. The part of Worker Girl is included in Act I, during the party scene. The character is part of the community of immigrant families living near the fairgrounds.

Lookatch and Johnson perform the part alongside Joffrey Ballet company members and 100 other students from the Joffrey Academy and other local studios that make up the children's cast. "It is lots of fun!" says Lookatch, who has cerebral palsy. "I like watching the other people dance."

Emma Lookatch in rehearsal for The Nutcracker

Courtesy The Joffrey Ballet

This new addition actually brings back a beloved Joffrey tradition. Robert Joffrey's version of The Nutcracker also used to include a role for a student with a disability. According to the Chicago Tribune, former artistic director Gerald Arpino added an accessible role for a Party Boy in 1997 when 8-year-old Stephen Hiatt-Leonard, who had cerebral palsy, auditioned for the children's cast.

For Lookatch, 14, this opportunity is a dream come true. Inspired by watching her younger sister Samara dance, Lookatch began taking a special needs ballet class at age 7. She hasn't looked back since.

"My biggest dream is that I go on 'America's Got Talent' and do a ballet performance," she says.

The Joffrey Academy's Adaptive Dance Program serves students with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, down syndrome and other varying movement abilities. Lookatch and Johnson have been taking private ballet classes with Tricia Strong through the program for the past three years.

"To say that Trish is wonderful is an understatement," says Bryan Lookatch, Emma's dad, noting that it was Strong who catalyzed the creation of this role. "This experience has really helped build Emma's confidence. It's something she never thought possible a few years back, so it really keeps her motivated."

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De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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