"Listen, the important thing to remember is, the mice have it tough," says Angela Shackford, 13.

She stands beneath exposed pipes in the basement two floors below stage level at Lisner Auditorium and points to the rack of thickly padded, furry brown costumes with iridescent eyes. "You can't see well with the head on; it gets so hot we have to cool off outside instead of backstage, and you've got to be careful not to bump into the prince . . . But it's fun, and when I'm home I think, 'I wish I was back at the theater.' "

Then the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky start to waft from the nearby orchestra pit, and Angela and nine other girls prepare to don the ankle-length outfits, complete with claw-like gloves. Another performance of the Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" -- continuing through Saturday -- is under way.

"It's the biggest cast, with the biggest production and the largest audience of anything we do," says Mary Day, artistic director and founder of the Washington Ballet. As it is for many other companies, "The Nutcracker" is also this ballet's biggest moneymaker, pulling in an estimated $375,000 during its popular two-week run.

Why do people keep coming back? Says Day, who admits to tiring of "The Nutcracker" sometimes toward the end of the 26-performance run, "I watch the faces in the crowd. People are smiling, children are dancing in their seats. When I see that enjoyment, I know we've given them something."

Although some critics have commented that the company's production might benefit from a major overhaul of the sets and dance steps, Day says she isn't so sure. "People know this is not the Bolshoi's 'Swan Lake' -- they didn't come for that, they came to see 'The Nutcracker' that they love."

Out front by the box office last weekend there seemed to be agreement. Four-year-old Andrew Staff, in a Dutchman's blue cap, said he was there "to see the 20-head mouse" (actually, the mouse in question had seven heads). Kate VanSchaick was there with her mother to celebrate her ninth birthday. A boy named Danny clutched a small cut-out drawing of a nutcracker as he waited in line with his family.

Mari Knudsen said she decided to take her 3-year-old Erica to the ballet after watching her view the Baryshnikov version on VCR. "She kept saying, 'More Nutcracker' whenever the tape was through, so we judged by her reaction that it was time to take her."

Mary Kraynak said she had first seen "The Nutcracker" on her own in Pittsburgh, but this time she was with her daughter Darcy, 4. "I enjoy it more with the kids. For the children, the growing Christmas tree and the Nutcracker Prince are real. It's a different sort of appreciation, it's a story that comes to life."

"The Nutcracker" is a family affair backstage, too.

Chris Akers, 10, plays one of the boys in the Act I party scene, while his father, corporate lawyer Jim Akers, again portrays the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer. "It can be a disadvantage when your father shares your dressing room -- then you have to behave," Chris says. (This year they are in separate rooms.)

Then there is the Piper family. Jennifer plays Clara, the young heroine; Steven, 11, plays a member of the Pompous family in Act I; and David, 9, alternates among three roles: the little cook who licks the bowl in the Mother Gigone (Mother Ginger) dance, the smallest member of the Pompous family and one of the members of the Twin family. Jane Piper, their mother, helps apply makeup for the toy soldiers, party children and other youngsters in the three casts.

"The boys had been dragged along in driving Jennifer to dance classes. One of my daughter's teachers asked David if he'd like a part. So now he's the little cook -- he loves it and he now takes lessons. Steven kept hearing last year how much fun it was, so he joined also . . . It means a lot to them."

David's favorite part, he says, "is being picked up in the air by the cook . I feel like I'm the biggest one on stage." Says Jennifer, who has studied ballet for five years and taken lessons at the Washington School of the Ballet for two: "You really feel part of Clara, meeting the Prince, getting the crown from the Sugar Plum Fairy. The part is really not dancing, it's more like acting, doing what you would feel like doing if you met the Nutcracker."

Just as Clara is the dream part for the younger girls at the ballet school -- ask any of the toy soldiers or the mice -- the ultimate role for older dancers is the Sugar Plum Fairy. Professional company members Lynn Cote, who now dances the part, and Julie Miles, who has danced the role, both worked their way up from smaller "Nutcracker" roles with the Washington Ballet production during their early teens.

Linda Adolphi, a newer member of the company who dances the Snow Queen among several "Nutcracker" parts, began as the wooden doll six years ago at age 14. " 'The Nutcracker' is one of the only storybook ballets besides 'Sleeping Beauty' that we do, and it does give you a chance to try different roles -- and it's one of the few times when people from the company dance with members of the ballet school," she says.

When the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier take their solo turns on stage, it is one of the few times when backstage seems to meld with the audience: Both are rapt. And when the applause begins in the audience, the clapping in the wings can sound just as loud.