Melody Campbell-Goeken remembers taking her son to see The Nutcracker for the first -- and as it turned out last -- time when he was 5 years old, at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio.
"As soon as he saw the giant rats and mice, he yelled loudly, 'I'm outta here!' and fled the aisle," his mom recalled. "That was the end of that highly expensive family memory. I suppose I should have prepared him much, much better."
With ballet schools and companies gearing up for another season of the holiday favorite -- Fort Worth-based Ballet Frontier of Texas presents its version starting Friday -- parents might be wondering how young is too young to take kids to the ballet.
Indeed, many moments in The Nutcracker are potentially confusing and sometimes even upsetting to young children: the Christmas tree growing tall, Clara's sorrow over her broken nutcracker doll, Uncle Drosselmeyer with his vaguely sinister eye patch, and, yes, life-size mice and toy soldiers engaging in battle. Later, as the ballet becomes less plot-driven and more of a spectacle showcasing the costumes, orchestra and dancing, children may become restless or bored.
Of course, no adult goes to see The Nutcracker without recognizing that the audience will be full of children who may never have seen a ballet or live performance before. There's more tolerance than usual for fidgeting and maybe even the occasional outburst.
Lisa Slagle, director of the Ballet Ensemble of Texas in Coppell, says she usually advises that children be at least 4 years old to sit through the whole production of The Nutcracker. Any younger than that, Slagle says, and they might get bored or restless.
Though Ballet Frontier usually advises that children be age 6 or older to attend one of its performances, board member Wendy Grosvenor says it also depends on a child's interest in ballet. Grosvenor says she has seen ballet students as young as 4 sit through a performance without any problems.
Sit near the aisle if you're bringing children that young, Slagle advises. This gives parents a quick exit in the face of a potential meltdown or a much-needed trip to the bathroom, she says.
And ask the presenting company or an usher how long the show will last and whether there's an intermission. Most Nutcracker productions can range from 1 1/2 to 3 hours, with at least one intermission.
Here are some things you can do to prepare children to see the ballet. Familiarizing them with the story, the music and audience etiquette can make the outing more enjoyable.
Share the story, don't spoil the magic
Larry Attaway, chairman of the dance department at Butler University in Indianapolis, says it helps if children understand that "the whole first part of The Nutcracker is real, but when Clara falls asleep, the rest of it is entirely her dream, and sometimes dreams are scary, sometimes dreams are beautiful, and sometimes dreams are really strange."
But still, the Nutcracker story can be confusing, Slagle says. Depending on the production, certain details of the story can be added, left out or even changed. For example, she says, she has seen productions where the title character Clara was referred to as "Marie."
"If you can just get across the whole idea of a little girl receiving a gift of a nutcracker then having a dream, then your child should be fine," Slagle says.
Parents can find online summaries of the story and video excerpts. You also can get storybooks (including a version illustrated by Maurice Sendak), coloring books, toys, paper dolls, musical recordings and other props to familiarize kids with characters and plot. Just make sure they know that, as with many fairy tales, it ends happily: Clara wakes from her dream with her family, her doll and her magical memories.
But don't show a DVD of the entire ballet at home.
"Save the movie for afterward so you don't spoil the magical fun of their first Nutcracker experience that could go on to become an annual tradition," said Tauna Hunter, director of the Mercyhurst University dance program in Erie, Pa.
Etiquette, the acts and acting your age
Attaway says kids have one part of audience behavior down pat: "At the end of the dance, you applaud. They've got that nailed down." But other aspects of theater etiquette -- being quiet, sitting still -- must be taught.
Most kids are captivated by the first act, with its well-defined characters and dramatic moments, like the party where Clara's brother misbehaves and breaks her toy nutcracker, or the sword fight with the mouse king.
"There's so much going on that it keeps them very much enthralled," said Attaway. While they might vocalize a question or reaction, they probably won't be bored.
It's harder to maintain attention as the ballet progresses. "As a parent and director, I found that young children have a difficult time getting through the pas de deux [dance for two] toward the end of Act II," said Hunter.
You may find your sleeve tugged with complaints of hunger, thirst, boredom or bathroom needs. For parents unopposed to bribery with junk food, offering a lollipop at the right moment can quiet discontent and buy time.
But if your kids hit a wall and can't settle down, "feel free to leave. Don't make it torture," said Attaway. Better to enjoy part of the show and go than to suffer through the whole thing, admonishing a squirmy little body to "Sit still!" while disturbing others.
Still, if they make it through the pas de deux, there's a payoff. "The finale will get them excited again and ready to go home dreaming of sugar plums," said Hunter.
Both Grosvenor and Slagle agree that the most important thing your child should know is that there is no talking. This means no talking for them during the performance and no talking by the performers.
Grosvenor recommends letting children know that once the lights begin to dim, the show begins and this means giving your undivided, silent attention.
As far as explaining that there's no dialogue onstage, Slagle recommends discussing with your child before the show the concept of miming and how the dancers are acting with movement rather than dialogue.
Hum a few bars
Many passages from Tchaikovsky's soaring score are so well-known that even people who've never seen the ballet recognize the music: the march from the party scene, the waltz of the snowflakes, and of course the dance of the sugar plum fairy, with the bell-like tones of an instrument called a celesta, the pizzicato (plucked) violins, and the mellow bass clarinet and other woodwinds.
In fact, that magical sugar plum melody has turned up so often over the decades in everything from Fantasia to Verizon ads that your kids may already know it. But additional listening to The Nutcracker soundtrack at home can only add to their enjoyment of the performance.
One family makes an easygoing tradition out of playing the music in the background while decorating the tree.
What is a nutcracker?
Some people collect them, some display them, some ask for one as a wedding gift. But few people use nutcrackers on a daily basis. Most kids won't know what they are. Does it matter?
Yes and no. You can explain what they're for, maybe even show how they work if you own one and have an unshelled pecan lying around. But don't sweat it, says Attaway: "It's one of those pieces of information that's totally obsolete." To understand the ballet, all they need to know is that the nutcracker in the show "is a toy or a doll. That's how Clara looks at it."