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At 93, John Cappello has been the waltzing grandfather for more than two decades in Niagara Falls’ “Nutcracker” performances.

That’s long enough to watch a generation of ballerinas pirouette through the story of a little girl named Clara who dreams her nutcracker toy becomes a prince.

And long enough to fall in love with a community tradition that will turn 29 when the Greater Niagara Ballet Company puts on the Christmas ballet next week.

“I love people. I’m a big ham,” Cappello said, in a strong Italian accent that doesn’t sound as if it’s changed much in the decades since he left southern Italy at 17 to get away from poverty on the family farm.

In Niagara Falls, in what may be one of the longest-running local performances of the classic ballet, the long-retired auto mechanic and volunteer senior companion has become a star.

He’s in only one scene, the party at the beginning of the ballet when Clara gets the nutcracker. As Clara’s grandfather, he dances with her mother. Then, for comic relief, he chases the maid.

When Cappello talks about his performance that has become a beloved part of the shows, his smile deepens.

He’s not worried about things going wrong this year during the two evening shows and Saturday matinee, Friday and Dec. 7 at Niagara Falls High School.

“No such thing,” he said. “I’m good.”

On a recent Saturday rehearsal, he walked into the studio with regal calm. In the back room, a Tchaikovsky CD played from a shelf stereo where artistic director Beverly Feder urged on her dancers to “Reach!”

In 2001, Feder was the first tenant at the Pine Avenue arts center, converted from the former Niagara Falls High School.

Now her operation, in the old music department, is a mix of her for-profit school and the nonprofit company that handles performances.

Cappello stood in the room by the door. Young women in black leotards lounged against the wall. Two mothers sat at a table with pizza slices in an open box and $1 baggies of iceberg lettuce – “salad in a bag.” Another sat on the floor sewing frog closures on new silk Chinese jackets in a folded stack of pink, gold, green and blues.

Cappello greeted them with a sweeping glance: “All my pretty girls,” he said.

In return, his pretty girls call him by the Italian word for grandfather.

“Where’s Nonno?” they ask when he’s not around.

This “Nutcracker” production, put on with help from about 40 volunteers, has gone on for so long that it is a homecoming reunion of sorts. The ballet family that comes together once a year for three months of rehearsals starts with Labor Day auditions. Its cast of about 80 young dancers from 10 local studios include older dance alums, now in college or settling into careers.

Alexa Luczak, a Mercyhurst College junior and a former Clara and Dew Drop Fairy, came to help the girls learn their parts when she was home for a weekend.

“You can’t get away,” she said with a smile. “It’s fun watching everybody grow up.”

Now that Luczak is studying to be a teacher, she’s been surprised by how much she misses the people, the dancing and even the salads she ate from the bag after a few shakes to toss in the dressing.

“I just want to relive that,” said Luczak, 20. “Nonno just brings it all together. He’s like the head of our family tree.”

Not far from Luczak, a pile of black tutus atop an upright piano fell softly. A small crowd stood, engrossed by dancers stepping en pointe and gracefully arcing their arms.

Twelve-year-old Lily Traver, in the Chinese tea dance, was waiting her turn. She’s famous for being in the “Nutcracker” before she was born. A few days before opening night 12 years ago, her pregnant mother, Julie Traver, Feder’s assistant, went into labor. Her son Paul arrived during a Saturday matinee in 1997.

“I have two Nutcracker babies,” Julie Traver, once a Sugar Plum Fairy, said with a laugh. “It’s a little hectic for me during their birthdays because they’re both right around our showtime. We’ve had many Nutcracker cakes.”

Vanessa Alaimo, 24, a tax accountant with M&T bank, was glad for the chance to dance again as she did growing up. As Clara’s mother, she feels honored to dance with Nonno in the party scene. This will be her second year doing the waltz.

Nonno reminds her of her own grandfather. “I’ve grown up with a lot of old Italian men,” she said with a grin.

Feder’s office, in the hallway between lobby and dance floor, appeared to be an ad-hoc dressing room, with bags, purses, shoes and empty Tim Hortons cups scattered about. Framed dance certificates and photos of dancers in tutus hung on the wall.

Feder was perched on a chair by the door, looking pixie-like with her black cropped hair. Someone handed her a pair of mother-made antlers painted gold and fixed with hair combs for the reindeer dancers who pull Clara’s sleigh.

“The crunch is on; we only have two weeks,” she said. “The feeling of love is very obvious in the company.”

She’s proud of how far she’s come and how the “Nutcracker” has grown since she was scavenging for costumes at Goodwill. She moved to Niagara Falls and opened her school in the 1960s and married her husband, Bill, a former county legislator. Her “Nutcracker” evolved gradually.

She started with excerpts in 1984. Four years later, she tried a full production, going without a waltzing grandfather until 1990.

It was probably a Christmas Eve dinner when she thought to ask Cappello, the father of her best friend, Felicia Pietrangeli.

She liked how he danced at family weddings. “He has just a very delightful way of presenting his movements. He’s light. He has a lot of rhythm,” she said. “He has that face. He’s wonderful with children …”

Cappello worried about his thick accent, but remembers Feder’s reassurance: “You don’t have to talk. Just dance.”

After boyhood fame as a champion tarantella folk dancer in Calabria, Italy, he learned American style while he was at Fort Dix, a young soldier drafted in 1942 during World War II. He used to pay 10 cents to jitterbug, cha cha and tango with young women at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.

Later he and his wife, Dolly – who died a few years ago – went to dinner dances at the Niagara Falls Knights of Columbus, the Moose and Elks clubs and Club Italia.

“We were the best,” he said.

One of his fondest “Nutcracker” performances was the year he waltzed with his granddaughter Lora, now a speech therapist, married and living in Arizona.

“Nobody dances this dance like her anymore,” he said.

Every year he tells himself that this “Nutcracker” will be his last. But when the applause comes, it gets to him.

Even before the first step, the music builds and there’s a burst of clapping. Then, when the waltz ends with a bow to Clara’s mother, the crowd, some of them relatives, friends, fellow bocce players and former dancers, erupts again.

“I just fall in love,” he said. “I dance with all my heart.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com