The famous party scene of The Nutcracker was in full swing, with dancers between the ages of 6 and 17 whirling around the room in leotards and ballet slippers, cradling their Christmas presents while the well-known music played.
Just then, J.J. Kaiser pulled an imaginary pocket watch out of his blue jeans pocket and registered surprise at the late hour. Soon the revelers, some carrying sleeping children over their shoulders, departed.
When the long, physically taxing scene was over, everyone in the studio of the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland in Columbia clapped. Then they went right back to rehearsing.
Kaiser, of Columbia, is one of 14 adults with parts in the 100-dancer production, which will be performed Dec. 7 as a benefit for the Howard County Autism Society. A software engineer by day, Kaiser said he enjoys playing the part of ballet dancer by night, partly because dancing is so important to his daughter, Juliana, 10, who will also be in the show.
"Last year, we had a scene together," he said.
In many Nutcracker productions, the adults are the experienced dancers, and the children, dressed in their little mouse costumes, are the ones appearing on stage for the first time. But Ballet Royale, which has been staging Nutcracker productions in Howard County since 1996, reverses the formula. The children are the pros, and their parents are the ones who are new to the stage.
This year's Ballet Royale production of the Nutcracker is different in several ways. For the first time, it is being performed as a benefit, with the money going toward a resource library for the Autism Society. Ballet Royale founder Donna Pidel, who normally directs, is dancing instead, taking on the role of Clara's mother.
Asked why she has chosen to perform instead of direct, Pidel said: "It's such a great cause" and explained that she has a 20-year-old autistic son. Alongside her, instructor Charlie Abel is dancing in the role of Clara's father.
The financial goal of the benefit performance, said Rachel Kennelly, the dance institute's assistant director, is to raise $10,000 through $50 ticket sales, donations and advertisements in the printed program.
"We're well on our way," she said.
Normally, the dance school puts on four Nutcracker performances during the holiday season, but this year, there will be a single show, said Pidel. Dancers from the American Ballet Theatre in New York - Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky - will play key roles, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, respectively.
The young students at Ballet Royale, which Pidel founded in 1994, generally practice five or six days a week, often until 9 p.m. They do their homework at the studio, and seem to eat, drink and breathe ballet.
So when parents get a chance to participate in something that's so much a part of their children's lives, they leap at the opportunity.
Trisha Bell, for example, has signed on to play Mother Ginger - the character with the giant hoop skirt that the kids all crowd inside. "They were recruiting for the part, and I said, `I'll do it,'" said Bell, whose daughter, Miranda, 8, is also performing in the Nutcracker.
Though Miranda, dressed in a blue leotard, her hair in a neat bun, rehearses three times a week, Bell needs to don her heavy costume, made with a metal ring, only once a week for Saturday rehearsals. Other adults have different schedules, based on their scenes.
"For me, it's a dream to be here with my daughter," said Dawn Lucas of Ellicott City, whose 8 1/2 -year-old, Margaux, is in the production. "It's a special experience, and we all get along so well."
Kennelly, who provided some choreography and is the show's stage director, said the adults generally throw their hearts into the roles and do a terrific job. "They're so dedicated," she said. "They don't want to be the ones to stick out. They really want to do well."
The Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland
Production of The Nutcracker Suite
7 p.m.,Dec. 7
Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia
$50 per ticket
Call Ballet Royale at 410-977-8443 for tickets