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Meet the 10-year-old who is part of Alabama Ballet history

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Hannah French, 10, has become the first African American to play the lead role of Marie in the Alabama Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." The production will debut in Birmingham Friday at Samford University's Wright Center. (Provided photo)

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

Hannah French, 10, has become the first African American to play the lead role of Marie in the Alabama Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." The production will debut in Birmingham Friday at Samford University's Wright Center. (Provided photo)
Hannah French, 10, has become the second African American to play the lead role of Marie in the Alabama Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” The production will debut in Birmingham Friday at Samford University’s Wright Center. (Arik Sokol photo)

Ten-year-old Hannah French has become the second African American to play the lead role of Marie in the Alabama Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”

More than 100 girls tried out for the position.

“I feel like it’s a privilege and I am so grateful,” Hannah said. “At the same time, I know I have to work really hard.”

The ballet company’s annual production of the Christmas classic has already had a touring run Dec. 4 in Anniston, and the company will officially debut in Birmingham Dec. 9 at Samford University’s Wright Center. Hannah is among three ballerinas chosen to play Marie, the girl who is whisked away by her toy nutcracker prince to a candyland.

Hannah’s father, G. Courtney French of Birmingham law firm Fuston, Petway and French, called his daughter’s achievement “an accomplishment for our community” and mentioned Misty Copeland, one of the few prominent black ballerinas in American ballet.

“Ballet is a cultural art where there are very few minorities. Misty Copeland is one that we all know, love, respect and revere for her accomplishments that she’s received as a premier ballerina,” Courtney said. “We understand as parents that there are other areas where we still have glass ceilings to break. It’s not that we can’t work and do the part. It’s that society has taught us … that the stereotypical ballerina looks like someone who’s very different than how Hannah looks.”

Both French and his wife, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Elisabeth French, have explained to their daughter that to achieve her goals, focus and dedication are needed, especially with the challenges ballet presents.

“We taught Hannah that she has to work harder than everyone else,” Elisabeth said. “We also tell her to keep positive and try her best no matter what anyone else says.”

“[We’ve] told her to achieve any goals, she has to work twice as hard and be twice as good and to practice twice as long,” said Courtney, who added that he was “emotional” watching his daughter in the lead role.

“I’ve witnessed the hard work, the sacrifice, the commitment, the dedication and the focus she has, even as a young child, in making sure she was the best ballerina she could be,” he said.

Hannah’s work ethic has been instilled in all three of their children, said the parents.

“[We] let them know the importance of hard work and…get them to understand that they can do anything, they can be anything, they can go as far as they want their dreams to go and have no one else to blame but themselves if they don’t reach their dreams,” Courtney said. “We try to tell them to always shoot for the stars.”

“While Hannah is only 10 years old, she is a role model in that she never gives up and she stays strong and confident under pressure,” Elisabeth said.

Hannah began ballet at 2 years old. “My parents enrolled me in a class, but I would sit on the sidelines with them,” she said. “I took another class at age 3 and that’s when I would actually dance and participate with the other kids.”

Hannah said her favorite part [of The Nutcracker] is the Party Scene. “I get to do a lot of dancing, wear a pretty dress and that’s when I get the Nutcracker doll.”

Both Courtney and Elisabeth support having the arts in schools, and Courtney hopes that through The Nutcracker, more people in the community will support and encourage the arts in children’s education.

“When you talk to any teacher, they will tell you the arts are so important to the development of a child,” he said. “It teaches them so many things that will later transfer into their work ethic and into whatever they want to be [in life].”

Hannah’s future goals already prove how life in the arts can teach the values of hard work and community service. “I want to go as far as I can as a ballerina and I also want to teach ballet,” she said. “Maybe I will open my own studio one day.”

This article has been updated on 12/8/2016 at 11:20 a.m. to reflect the Hannah French is the second African American dancer to be cast as Marie in the Alabama Ballet’s Nutcracker.