In the early morning hours of November 30, a nervous Jenelle Manzi sat in front of her dressing room mirror, wondering if she remembered how to perform. The professional ballerina was about to make her return to The Nutcracker after recovering from an ankle fracture, an injury that sidelined her from the stage for months.

But as soon as the curtains rose, the New York City Ballet veteran reminded herself that her skills are “second nature,” as Manzi tells SELF.  

For many ballet companies, performing The Nutcracker is an annual holiday tradition. The classic story follows Marie (in some versions called Clara) who receives a nutcracker gift and travels to a magical land on Christmas Eve. This year, Manzi plays Marie’s mother—a role that requires a rather tricky maneuver where she must place a cloak on Marie while surrounded by candles. It was the scene Manzi was most nervous about, after knocking over a candle during the dress rehearsal. But for her first performance back, she nailed it.

“It was like no time had passed,” says Manzi, who has danced with the New York City Ballet since 2006. “I’m feeling good. I’m excited to get back fully and be performing every night, because it’s such a progression coming back from an injury.”

Manzi lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—an inherited connective tissue disorder that makes joints hypermobile—and has dealt with her share of injuries as a result of it, including one at the age of 17 that kept her from dancing for two years. The condition, she says, has made dancing easier in some ways (she’s extremely flexible, which results in great extension, for instance) but harder in others, since her joints pop out, causing injuries and inflammation.

“I didn’t understand why my body didn’t feel like anyone else’s; I didn’t understand why my body would pop out in certain places where no one else’s would,” she says.

It’s been a lot of “trial and error,” she says, referring to what kind of training and recovery makes her body feel best, but she’s now in a better place. Thanks to the help of doctors and other experts, she has a better handle of what works for her and what doesn’t, and is able to work that knowledge into her training.

And her role in The Nutcracker this year is a culmination of that: For Manzi, who has been dancing since age 4 and performing in The Nutcracker since age 16, hitting the stage for perhaps the world’s most famous holiday ballet brings her back to “childlike joy,” she says.  

“[After seeing The Nutcracker] I had this big dream of one day dancing in it myself, and who knew I would make it to that exact stage,” Manzi says. “Whenever things feel tough, I always reflect on how I’m living out my lifelong dream—nothing beats it.”

While it may be a dream part, dancing The Nutcracker involves a grueling schedule, especially during the holidays, when the company often performs back-to-back shows. They have various start times—everything from 1 p.m. in the afternoon to 8 p.m. in the evening—which makes getting into a regular routine difficult. Plus, even after her curtain call, Manzi doesn’t have much time to rest. She uses her off hours to run Get Golden, a natural snack company she launched in 2020. The seeds for Get Golden were planted while Manzi was injured as a teen and became interested in nutrition as a way to help her recovery.