There's a certain magic about seeing an artist at work.

It's not the spell that's cast over an audience as the curtin goes up on opening night or as the spotlight springs to life in the first act. It's the empathy felt when watching someone try, over and over again, to reach perfection.

Saturday afternoon, The Washington Ballet let everyone know what it takes to be a professional dancer when it opened its doors for a behind-the-scenes look at the company.

In the heat of the hazy afternoon, children, dogs and adults pushing strollers with balloons tied on them lined up to get inside. The Washington Ballet Festival was supposed to begin at noon. People started arriving almost an hour before that and halfway through the afternoon an estimated 1,500 people had come through the doors.

"We had no idea" was echoed throughout the corridors -- coming from managing director Alton Miller; from founder and artistic director Mary Day; from 20-year-old company member Sandra Bronfman; and even from a few people who were trying to weed their way through the Jam-packed halls.

P.J. Bolle, one of the company;s board members, said she hadn;t had any idea the afternoon would be such a success. But to keep things moving, she stood on a table near the door in her black-and-white miniskirt and kept traffic flowing by constantly hollering directions. Handwritten signs with big red arrows did the rest.

Upstairs, films were being shown of Amanda McKerrow, the dancer who last year won a gold medal in Moscow with her partner Simon Dow. On various tables in the garden, old toe shoes, soda, baked goods, ice cream and used books were for sale. In the corner, children could have their faces made-up.

But the main attraction was in the two studios where Choo San Goh, the company's resident choreographer and assistant artistic director, was conducting rehearsals of his ballets, including "Fives" and his newest, "In the Glow of the Night," before the company leaves next week for its fall European tour.

"No, like this," Goh would say, stopping the music, tilting his head and pointing his toes in a particular stance. Behind his chair, three rows of onlookers sat with mouths open and eyes glued to the sweeping, sweating ballet dancers. Occasionally, a small boy or girl trying to see the dancers grabbed the back of Goh's chair and peered over his shoulder, or bumped Goh's toe (covered by a white ballet slipper) while trying to peer out from underneath his crossed legs.

It was the magic of watching art in the making, of getting to see the secret of the finished performance -- the exhausting rigorous process of rehearsal.

"I think people are curious to see what goes on behind the stage," said Goh.

But it was more than curiosity for some.

"C'mon in here, sweetheart," a mother told her little girl as she pulled her into Studio 2. "You wanna watch Amanda. Remember? She's the ballerina you saw on television."

Amanda was McKerrow, 18. She and Bonnie Moore, 17, who last January took first prize at the Prix de Lausanne competition, had just gone into Studio 2 with Craig Steerling, a new member of the company formerly with the Houston Ballet.

While more than 100 people squished in, the three stretched, twirled, leaped and primped before peeling off their leg warmers to begin "Glow" for Goh. After one movement, that group was ushered out and another brought in, but not before one girl darted up to McKerrow and asked for her autograph.

Outside, where the air wasn't quite so thick with people, two 5-year-old girls gave their opinions of the dancers.

"I like it best when they . . ." said Angela Papavasiliou, as she turned and leaped into the air. Her friend Kerry Bailey liked that best, too.

"You know," Kerry said when the two came back for a serious answer, "I really am a ballerina in real life 'cause I used to take lessons. But now I take gymnastics."