In a third-floor Ellicott City dance studio, a type of controlled chaos is in full force.
"Slowly, slowly, we have to fill out the music," calls teacher Michaela Mueller as goose-stepping soldiers and scurrying mice practice the Nutcracker's battle scene with the Mouse King. "You all got into position too quickly."
For the next few weeks, Ms. Mueller of Sykesville will spend every Saturday and several hours during the week guiding and directing the steps of the students she teaches as part of Caryl Maxwell's dance studio.
And she loves every long, exhausting minute of it.
"During the week, we don't get home until 10 or 10:30 at night," Ms. Mueller said, referring to herself, her daughter Nadia and their neighbor Emilie Johnson. "But I really enjoy it. It's difficult, but it's important that I have an outlet for myself."
All three Sykesville residents will be performing in the Ellicott City Ballet Guild's production of the "Nutcracker" later this month.
Ms. Mueller, a native of Austria who was raised in South Africa, began her ballet career at the age of 9, when her mother enrolled her in classes with her first teacher, Vera Lane.
"My mother had a great love of dance," she said. "She must have seen 'An American in Paris' at least 14 times. She swore that her daughters would take ballet lessons."
The experience was love at first step, she said.
"When I put on my first pair of ballet shoes and heard the music, I was in heaven," Ms. Mueller said. "I've never looked back."
When she came to the United States in 1986, Ms. Mueller said she found a second home in Caryl Maxwell's studio. Ms. Mueller, who was trained in Cecchetti, an Italian method of ballet, began teaching in November 1987.
She also began choreographing pieces for Ms. Maxwell's dance production.
"My great love is choreography," said Ms. Mueller, 40. "I have done choreography ever since I put on ballet shoes and listened to music."
Her first choreography project for Ms. Maxwell was in 1990, when the studio owner's father died as the company was preparing for the annual winter production. Knowing Ms. Mueller's love of choreography, Ms. Maxwell entrusted her with designing the battle scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
"I was scared to death," Ms. Mueller said. "I felt like I had jumped into the deep end, but I realized that the only way to do it was just to do it."
The complicated scene involves directing the Nutcracker and his army, the Mouse King and his army, and the heroine, Clara, in a frenzied battle that ends when she kills the oversized rodent by beating him over the head with her slipper.
"It's very difficult to coordinate and teach because there are a lot of characters on stage at the same time," said Ms. Mueller, who portrayed the Mouse King in that first production.
"It's a lot of hard work, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of it."
Her choreographic inspiration came from videos of "The Three ++ Musketeers," the ballet "Romeo and Juliet" and even memories of the television show "Zorro," she said.
"It's amazing where you pick up things," Ms. Mueller said with a laugh. "One of my favorite shows as a child was 'Zorro.' But I watched [the ballets] so that I stayed within what was proper to do for an actual ballet."
During practices, Ms. Mueller said, she is willing to take on any role necessary, jumping from the grandmother to the Mouse King to Clara within a matter of minutes.
"I'm the Jack-ess of all trades," she said, emphasizing the 'e' with a laugh. "I really love it, jumping around feeling like I'm 20 again. Then I wake up the next morning and my body says, 'Woman, slow down. You're not 20 anymore.' "
This year, she will perform only the grandmother during the show, a role she has played since starting with Ms. Maxwell's school in 1987.
"I've made the character my own," Ms. Mueller said. "Each year people come up to me and say I've done a good job.
"When I did it for the first time, I went around Carroll County and studied old people in the supermarkets. I studied their faces and how they walked to get into the character of a grandmother."
Part of the reason for sticking with the grandmother role was a recent decision to pack her pointe shoes away, Ms. Mueller said.
"I'm sad that I don't dance pointe any more," she said. "But it was getting to the point that it was too painful."
Ms. Mueller's love of and enthusiasm for ballet sparked the interest of her daughter.
"My mom was teaching a class, so I decided to take a class," said Nadia, who has been studying at Caryl Maxwell's studio for four years. "It's a lot of fun. It's very expressive."
Her best friend and next door neighbor, Emilie Johnson, joined classes a year later.
"I thought it was neat, so maybe I'd try it too," said Emilie, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Sykesville Middle School. "I like it a lot. It's very graceful."
Taking classes four or five times a week for a total of about seven hours consumes a lot of time, the girls said.
Outside interests are almost nil during the school year and homework must be squeezed in between practices, school and sleep.
"It's real hard," said Emilie, who will be dancing as one of the boys during the first act party, an angel and a soldier during the fight scene. "I usually do [homework] as soon as I get home from school to get it out of the way."
Nadia will be performing as a snow flower, a soldier and an angel, and will be part of the Chinese dance.
"Some of my friends go to other ballet schools, so we compare teachers and what we are doing in class," Emilie said. "The others say, 'It's so neat that you don't play soccer, you do ballet.' "
Both said they prefer pointe work to dancing in their ballet slippers, particularly if their feet don't hurt.
But as much as she loves dancing, Nadia, a 13-year-old freshman at Liberty High School, doesn't think she'll follow her mother's example into a professional ballet career.
"There's so much to do," she said. "There's so much work and my feet would be dead."
Instead, she thinks she'll be a school teacher.
Emilie said she wants to be an oceanographer.
bTC "I really like fish and the oceans," she said. "I like whales a whole lot. They're large and very graceful and very quiet."
The Ellicott City Ballet Guild will be performing the "Nutcracker" at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 through Dec. 12 and 2 p.m. Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre in Columbia. Ticket prices range from $8 to $13.
Information: (410) 465-3547.