On the Job
Ballet Mistress Abigail Francisco
A Nutcracker Dream Come True
by Diane Burr
Abigail Francisco, owner and artistic director of the renowned North Beach dance school bearing her name, glows as she describes her Nutcracker.
Brightening her aura are more than 55 whirling dancers ... more than a trio of professional dancers imported from New York ... more than the 200 brilliantly costumed characters ... more than the triumphant culmination of hundreds hours of work.
This season’s gala performance of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic her 14th in Chesapeake Country was something special. This year, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra came to town to set her dancers spinning.
Their live music raised the bar so high that Abigail says there can be no going back.
Dancing Away from an Unfortunate Series of Events
Abigail Francisco was born 48 years ago in Caxias Do Sol, Brazil, to a seamstress art teacher, Maria, and a soldier-actor, Amirante Francisco. The only girl in a family of four brothers, she grew pigeon-toed. Specialists fitted the four-year-old with clunky, black corrective shoes.
“My mother was so upset,” Abigail recalled. “She asked the doctors how they could put her only little girl into such awful shoes. I could hardly walk in them, and they looked just terrible. My mother pleaded with the doctors: Isn’t there some other way? They suggested dance lessons.”
Dancing not only straightened out her crooked feet; it took her heart. She studied dance and opened her own studio in Brazil. But her brother lured her to the United States, where she began a second career. She studied at the Washington School of Ballet, taught and danced with the American Contemporary Ballet Company of Washington and started another dance school in Silver Spring.
But when Francisco was 29, fortune struck her down. “Leaving rehearsal one night, I slipped and fell on the ice. I knew immediately that it was very bad,” she said.
She had broken her back.
“It was my fifth and sixth vertebrae,” she said. “I could barely turn my head or move my neck, let alone dance. I was afraid I’d never be able to dance again.”
She wore back and neck braces for many months.
As she recovered, trouble struck again.
“Seven months after I broke my back,” she continued, “I was driving near the Washington Monument when someone rear-ended me, pushing my car into others ahead. It was an awful chain-reaction accident that re-injured my back, which had not completely healed. I knew then and there that my career as a dancer was over.”
Faith pulled her through. But, she said, “God has never let me down.”
Which is how Abigail Francisco’s School of Classical Ballet came to North Beach.
All in the Family
“I have only one son, and I always wanted a daughter. So it turns out that now I have about 150 of them,” Abigail said of the students who grow up in her studio.
Just a few steps from North Beach’s boardwalk and million-dollar Bay view, The Abigail Francisco School of Classical Ballet employs nine contract dance instructors and three full-time employees to teach classes at all skill levels for children as young as three in ballet, jazz, tap, Pilates and creative movement. This fall, ballroom dance classes for adults began.
But Abigail’s is still a family business. The family lives upstairs and works with her downstairs. Son Felipe Francisco-Gomes 21, is her stage manager. Husband Bill Mockabee, a nurse at Calvert Memorial Hospital, took the Nutcracker role of Clara’s father so he could see his wife more often in her 16-hour days that began in September and continued through the first week of December.
Abigail’s mother Maria was also part of the business, sewing costumes and teaching the girls to sew. Her death last December, shortly after her 80th birthday and 2005’s Nutcracker made this year’s performance a bittersweet anniversary and upped the ante.
Like her mother, Abigail teaches much more than ballet. She teaches life.
Hearing mothers complain that their daughters wouldn’t make their beds or clean up their rooms, Abigail said she came up with a plan to teach the girls a lesson. She brought them to her home and invited them to look around.
“We looked in her bedroom and it was so perfect,” said 12-year-old Ali MacWilliams of St. Leonard, who has studied with Abigail for eight years. “Her bed was all made up. It was so pretty. We all thought it was so nice.”
Then, Abigail recounted, “I asked the girls to excuse me for a minute. I closed the door, threw all the blankets on the floor along with some towels and clothes. I made it a real mess. I came back out and said, what do you think of my room now?”
Ali said, “We were so shocked. We didn’t know what to say.”
Abigail said, “They thought I was crazy and nobody said a word. But the next week at class, their mothers told me that they had started making up their beds and picking up their rooms.”
She hosts tea parties and dinner parties to teach etiquette. To form character as well as behavior, she encourages charitable acts. Last year, her girls baked cookies for firemen and delivered them to fire houses all over Calvert County. This month, the girls dance at the Calvert Marine Museum.
As 17-year-old student Jenna Tummino of LaPlata explained, “Abigail takes us all kinds of places to meet Congressmen, to perform at nursing homes, veterans hospitals, senior citizens. But she has one rule: she won’t take us anywhere if we are wearing jeans, shorts or flip-flops. She is so great, but she’s also really strict.”
“That’s right,” Abigail agreed. “My girls are learning to be ladies, and they are going to look respectable in public.”
The Price of Dreams
Some 50 of Abigail’s girls and a few of her boys looked more than respectable as they took the stage December 2 through 4 for Abigail School of Classical Ballet’s 14th annual The Nutcracker. Straight, strong and graceful, they looked like art come to life.
Tummino, who has taken dance lessons five days a week since the sixth grade, danced the role of Clara in Friday morning’s performance for county schools. On Saturday and Sunday, Christine Judge of Prince Frederick a long-time student and freshman at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts sweetly danced the dreamer who sets the fantasy in motion. Anthony ‘Tony’ Savoy, a 17-year-old Southern High School senior, danced her Nutcracker prince, provoking applause with his leaps.
Back stage, dancers quickly changed costumes to hurry back on stage in new roles. MacWilliams, for example, danced a girl in the party scene, a soldier in the battle scene, an angel and a flower.
On stage, the young people bloomed into their roles as cookies, for the youngest, Spanish and Russian dancers, Chinese boys and girls, snowflakes and flowers. When the muscular pros lithe Sascha Radetsky and willowy Stephanie Walz twirled in among them, the contrast of youthful aspiration and mature achievement set the audience awing in admiration.
Inspiring all this dancing were three dozen of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra’s professional musicians conducted by Annapolis Chorale’s J. Ernest Green. Playing (all but two) invisibly from the orchestra pit, they filled the big Harrison Center hall with sound that seemed like weather, encompassing.
Thus came true a dream Abigail had nourished for 14 years. It came true this year in part because of a chance encounter among townspeople, the kind of magic that sweetens the turns of real life.
As Abigail tells it, she had dropped into North Beach’s landmark Nice and Fleazy Antique Store to say hello to friend and neighbor Dale Thomas.
In Thomas’ narration, “Abigail was saying that her rocket ship of desire, her wildest dream, was that her students could dance to live music.”
Thomas became this Nutcracker’s biggest backer, with a donation of $10,000. Other sponsors including Patricia Fowler, who made a gift of $5,000 in memory of Robert McCullough added hundreds and thousands more.
Even so, the costs of Abigail’s symphonic Nutcracker have staggered her, sending her to the bank for back-up loans and testing her resolve to continue this Christmas tradition.
“This is so much more expensive than most people realize,” she said. “Some years we’ve come close to covering the costs, but I’ve never made money. We’ve held so many fundraisers. This year, I’m even auctioning some of my costumes and ballet slippers to raise money.”
Bringing the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra to Calvert for two performances costs $27,000. That’s on top of about $32,000, her Nutcracker’s average cost.
Production costs go up each year. Renting the Harrison Center runs to $7,000, while lighting, gels, backdrops and fog machines cost at an additional $5,000 to $6,000.
Even those skimpy little tutus are not cheap; the average tutu costs some $500. More lavish dance costumes of silk, brocade and trimmings can cost $2,000 or more to create. Wigs, make-up, upswept hair and ornaments can cost $200 for a lead performer.
Even snow is expensive, Abigail said ruefully. “We use snow machines that blow about 100 bags of confetti per day at about $3 per bag. After every performance, the kids all pitch in and we try to pick up and save as much of the confetti as possible so we have plenty of snow for the next show.”
Dreams come true at a price. Before the heavy red velvet curtains parted, before the Annapolis Symphony musicians lifted bow and horn for the long orchestral prelude, Abigail Franciso announced her decision: Just as there could be no going back, there will be no going forward. Her 14th Nutcracker, she said, would be her last.