Ed Grisamore

She was born with club feet. Now she’s the lead ballerina in ‘The Nutcracker’

Aubree Bethune
Aubree Bethune

The first words Tonya Bethune said when her daughter, Aubree, arrived in the world were, “What’s wrong with her feet?”

They looked like a pair of fish hooks. They could have passed for a couple of those crooked letters in Mississippi.

“Both of her feet were completely turned inward,” said her father, Neil Bethune. “They touched the inside of her legs.”

What do you say when your daughter is born with club feet? Do you resign yourself to the possibility that she may never dance, skip or jump rope? Or that she will have a difficult time buying shoes? Or that everyone will stare when she walks down the aisle on her wedding day?

No, you don’t mention any of those things. You don’t kick dirt on her dreams or throw cold water on her resolve.

“She’s our miracle,” Neil said.

In 18 days, the Nutcracker of Middle Georgia ballet will take the stage at the Grand Opera House in Macon for the first of seven performances.

And Aubree Faith Bethune — who loves to draw, play the piano, eat watermelon and watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — has the coveted lead role of Clara in one of Macon’s most popular annual holiday traditions.

“I get butterflies just thinking about it,” Tonya said. “I still can’t believe it. It’s like I’m going to wake up, and it’s not real.”

In June 2015, the Bethune family moved from Dallas to Houston. Only it had nothing to do with Texas. They went from the north metro Atlanta suburb of Dallas to Houston County.

Neil, a civil service worker, was transferred from Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta to Robins Air Force Base. Tonya now works as a worship leader at Southside Baptist Church in Warner Robins.

Neil and Tonya celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year and also became first-time grandparents. They have a daughter, Tory, who is 24, and a son, 16-year-old Connor, who is in a dual enrollment program at Perry High School and Georgia Military College in Warner Robins.

Aubree, who is home schooled, became a teenager two months ago. She turned 13 on Sept. 11. She was born on the second anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history.

She wasn’t exactly a poster child for planned parenthood.

“We had no idea she was coming,” Tonya said, laughing. “She was a surprise. We called her the ‘Uninvited One.’ ”

Tonya got the name, “Aubree,” from a wall in a pediatrician’s office. Her daughter’s middle name, “Faith,” speaks for itself. She was small at birth, weighing in at 6 pounds, 4 ounces and a shade under 18 inches long.

Her parents were more alarmed about her bent, tiny pink feet. They swiveled to the inside like a swinging gate.

A club foot is a birth defect that occurs when the tendons connecting the foot bones with the leg muscles are tight and short, causing the foot to twist inward. Her right foot was a “true” club foot. Her left was what is known as a positional club foot, although it was just as severe.

As a baby, the doctors placed casts on Aubree’s legs every week to stretch her bones and muscles. She later wore corrective shoes with a brace. She was not allowed to take them off, even when she slept.

Developmentally, she did not lag behind. She crawled when she was supposed to crawl and walked when she was supposed to walk.

At age 5, she had ligament surgery to align her feet.

Her right leg is still smaller than the left, and her right foot is one shoe size smaller than the size 6  1/2 she wears on her left.

“We never said much about how it happened, why it happened and where it was going,” said Neil. “But we were always concerned she might be limited in some of her physical activities.”

Those fears proved to be unfounded. If Aubree was restricted, she never showed it. She was determined. And her mom, who is a vocal coach, noticed something.

“She had a gift for music,” Tonya said. “She could feel the music, even as a baby.”

Tonya did a Google search for “ballet” and “club feet.” The results were not encouraging. Still, when Aubree was in the first grade, Tonya approached an instructor with the Georgia Metropolitan Dance Theatre in Marietta. She shared Aubree’s story and wondered if enrolling her daughter in ballet would improve her strength, balance and self-confidence.

“I didn’t want to put her in something where she couldn’t go all the way if she fell in love with it,” Tonya said. “The teacher said she thought it would be awesome.”

Aubree was awarded a scholarship through the Georgia Dance Conservatory. No one in the family had any history or experience with ballet, so it was uncharted territory.

Many of the ballet techniques, like plies (bending knees) and stretching against the wall, were similar to the physical therapy exercises Aubree already had been doing.

“When she started, we were concerned about the strength of her feet and ankles and if they could hold the weight,” Neil said.

But years of “overcompensating” for her physical disability had practically turned Aubree’s ankles into steel beams. Now, they are so strong she routinely breaks the stems in her ballet shoes. She goes through “pointe” shoes at the rate of a pair for every 12 hours on the dance floor.

One of the family’s top priorities after moving to Kathleen was finding a dance studio. She found a home with the Academy of Dance in Warner Robins.

Last year, the Bethunes were not aware of the Middle Georgia Youth Ballet and the annual Nutcracker holiday tradition at the Grand Opera House. So this marks her first time in the production.

She auditioned in September. After several callbacks, the Bethunes were driving down Houston Lake Road when they learned she had been cast in the lead role. There was so much hooting, hollering and hyperventilating, Tonya is convinced she might have ended up in a ditch if she hadn’t pulled over.

Aubree now answers to Clara.

Her story should be an inspiration to others.

Nobody asks her what’s wrong with her feet.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism, creative writing and storytelling at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.

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