For 11 years, performers with Sykesville's Carroll County Dance Center have donned sparkling tutus and regal solider uniforms for the facility's annual performance of "The Nutcracker."
Though the dancers change every year, the costumes haven't ever been swapped out, said Becky Eckrote, one of the center's owner - a mark that the classic Christmas show has become a tradition.
"Kids will see the costumes from year to year and say 'I love that costume,' and want to wear it," Eckrote said.
This year, a cast of 75 of children ages 6 and older, and six adults, will perform the full two-act, two-hour ballet at The Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. There will be two showings the week before Christmas - 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15.
Auditions began in August for the piece, a Christmas story that details the adventure of Clara, a young girl sucked into the Land of Sweets, presided over by the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara faces the Mouse King and his army, alongside gingerbread men and her toy nutcracker - a prince.
The story, originating in the 1800s, is one of the most recognized holiday ballets, Eckrote said. The center's former owner, Sandra Woods, began coordinating performances of "The Nutcracker" in 2003, which has continued through Eckrote's tenure which started in 2008. Eckrote is part-owner of the facility, along with Megan Logee, "The Nutcracker's" creative director.
Logee said she has functioned as creative director for the show since 2009.
"Even though it's the same ballet, the kids change, the choreography is different, it's always exciting for me," she said.
The cast practices every Saturday from roughly 1:30 to 6 p.m. beginning in September - in November, practices are extended to the same hours on Sundays. The depth and complexity of the piece requires such intensive hours, Eckrote said. The first couple months are spent choreographing individual dances, while the Sundays are devoted to stringing the dances together to form the scenes, then the acts.
Eckrote said the show is a professional representation - while the auditions were open to the entire community, most of the dancers are recruited from the center's upper-level classes, which are catered to teens, ages 14 and older, to take on the leads. Younger children fill the simpler roles, like mice and soldiers.
Heather Leitner, 28, was one of the initial dancers for the show in 2003, and after a break, returned to perform for the past four years. This year, she plays an Arabian Coffee Dancer from the Land of Sweets.
"It gets you in the Christmas season," Leitner said. "You always hear the music [from "The Nutcracker"] in the stores."
A change this year is the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy - typically the center hires a professional ballerina to take on the role, however, two students were selected to undertake one of most difficult leads.
"We're proud of them," Ekcrote said. "Some professionals say no to this role."
Faith Woodyard, 16, is one dancers who portrays the Sugar Plum Fairy - she said the role is a challenge for her, but an honor.
The Sugar Plum Fairy requires a great deal of stamina, Woodyard said.
"It's a lot," she said. "You're huffing and puffing by the end of it."
Much of the community becomes involved with the show, Ekcrote said. More than 100 volunteers, largely parents, take part in ticket sales, set and scene changes, and publicity.
Sharon Beck is a first-year volunteer whose 6-year-old daughter, Taryn, plays an angel.
Beck said she saw Taryn, who possessed boundless energy, "light up" on stage. The show is a little nostalgic for Beck as well, who said she remembers reading "The Nutcracker" book with her family.
"She fell in love with the art," Beck said, referring to her daughter. "She loves watching the older dancers. I think exposing children to all kind of different arts is imperative to their growth and creativity."
Beck assists with publicity for the show, including "The Nutcracker" tea, at 1 p.m., Dec. 8, in which children and parents can visit the Carroll County Dance Center for tea and cakes, and interact with some of the dancers one-on-one. They then perform snippets from the show for an hour. The whole package costs $10 and tickets sell out quickly, Eckrote said.
The tea is great initial exposure to the world of dance, particularly for children, who typically fuss when forced to sit through a two-hour show, Eckrote said.
"This is to get people in the spirit of Christmas and the holidays," she said.