While dozens of little boys and girls decked in Victorian garb pranced on the stage before her, Sheila Hoffman-Robertson stretched out in an auditorium seat and cast a critical eye on the fruits of her labor.

"This is wonderful. I have never seen this," said Hoffman-Robertson, artistic director of the Loudoun Ballet Company of Hamilton.

Actually, she was only half right. She has seen this, her company's rendition of the party scene from "The Nutcracker," many times, but never from an observer's seat. Usually, Hoffman-Robertson is a few feet from the stage, trying to direct 100 people at once, while at the same time keeping half an eye on lighting, costumes and props.

Now, a few days before opening night, Hoffman-Robertson is having her first look at what she hopes will be seen by hundreds of spectators in the next couple of weeks. This is the first year a full-length production of the quintessential holiday ballet will be performed in Loudoun County, and she is hoping for no less than a smash.

"They're moving much more elegantly in the costumes," she says of her little girls, adorned in brightly colored tea-length dresses with big bows. "The little boys, in satin shirts and velvet knickers . . . . " Here she pauses and makes an "okay" sign with her fingers. "Two costumes that don't fit, but other than that, all right."

Last year, the Loudoun Ballet Company performed excerpts from "The Nutcracker" as a warm-up, but Hoffman-Robertson was willing to settle for that just one time. Immediately afterward, she began work on choreography for a full-length performance. In April, the company held auditions, opening them to students from nine local ballet schools as well as the Loudoun School of Ballet, Hoffman-Robertson's school. Practices began in September.

"It's a big commitment for the dancers," she said. "Every Saturday from noon to 7 p.m., except the Saturday after Thanksgiving."

To alleviate some of the inconvenience that schedule might cause, she stressed making the ballet a family affair. Plenty of parents are sharing the stage, although not necessarily in ballet slippers, with their children for the production.

"We've got a lot of families, fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, just about every combination you can think of," Hoffman-Robertson said. "If one of them is going to be here, they might as well all be here."

Others in Loudoun's artistic community -- those who use their hands as opposed to their feet -- are integral parts of the production as well. Painter Mary Alice Coussoulous did the backdrop for the snow scene, Anne Larson and Dwight Green did the growing Christmas tree and the small props, and Joan Gardiner did the papier-ma~che' mouse heads.

The company is also getting help from Blue Ridge Middle School art teacher Rob Dew, who constructed sets for The Land of the Sweets, and from drama teacher John Wells, who persuaded a few boys from his acting classes to participate in the ballet. Hoffman-Robertson is especially thrilled about that.

"It needs that authenticity of having boys," she said. "In a lot of performances, girls play the boys parts, and they can't pull it off."

To give as many children as possible a chance to shine, Hoffman-Robertson has double-cast many of the lead roles. The role of Clara is danced in alternate performances by Jayme Farris, of Purcellville, and Nicola Gardiner, of Lincoln; Fritz is danced by brothers Jeremy and Robert Spicer, of Ashburn; and the Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by Abigail Dennis, of Round Hill, and Colleen Potts, of Leesburg.

In many performances of "The Nutcracker," adults dance the parts of youths, but in this show, children are played by children. Jayme and Nicola, the two Claras, are 13 and 12, respectively.

"To me, that's hard for a child, to identify with {Clara played by} a woman of 20," Hoffman-Robertson said. "Whereas I hope every little girl in our audiences will want to wear that dress," a pink and white flouncy affair worn by Clara.

Still, not everyone can be a Clara, at least not this time. The ballet calls for plenty of young yeomen to be mice, soldiers, party guests and candies. And someone has to be Mother Ginger, a character who hides 14 children under her voluminous skirts. This time, that falls to 16-year-old Wendy Craun, of Leesburg, who must negotiate the stage on stilts.

"I just walk," she said gratefully. "Nothing fancy."

Hoffman-Robertson, who honed her skills at the Washington School of Ballet, the National Ballet and the Maryland Dance Theatre, has been teaching dance for 20 years. After seven years in Bethesda, she ventured to Loudoun County in 1977.

She was surprised by what she found.

"Even from the very beginning, there were people out here who wanted to do ballet. I opened with 80 people in the first week." Her Hamilton school now has 250 students.

So now, 13 years later, she is counting on a strong turnout for this show, for which children have papered the area with fliers and Loudoun Ballet Executive Director Charles Wilkinson has made repeated visits to local media.

"I think that the area {residents} will travel a great distance to get the culture, to go to a ballet," Hoffman-Robertson said. "It's part of their {holiday} tradition. We're saving them a trip to D.C."

"The Nutcracker" will be performed at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday for the next two weekends. Admission is $10. Call 777-0065.