Hortensia Fonseca's basement is a kind of Christmas workshop. Here, the pace is hectic. Sewing machines run day and night and, one by one, sequined, colorful costumes take their shape.

Since October, the 68-year-old director of the Maryland Youth Ballet has rarely left her Wheaton house. To design and sew 105 costumes for her school's first production of "The Nutcracker," she begins about 9 a.m. and continues until at least 2 o'clock the next morning. Her sons bring in the groceries.

"Oh no, I can't leave. There's too much to do," Fonseca said. "Ah, but I love to see the kids dance. I love those kids."

Tomorrow night, when the curtain goes up on the youth ballet's performance of Tchaikovsky's holiday classic at Montgomery College, in full view will be Fonseca's efforts as the company's director, costume-maker and, many say, continuing inspiration.

For the Sugar Plum Fairy, there will be gold lace over pink satin, hand-painted glitter designs flowing over the fabric.

For the toy soldiers, there will be uniforms in a brilliant red -- bold, correct and dignified.

And, for Anna Smith, the 17-year-old playing the Snow Queen, there will be a tutu in silver and white with an iron-stiff ruffle that conjures up images of ice peaks and elegance.

"It's so beautiful," Smith said after trying on the costume one recent day in Fonseca's basement. "You feel special. And on the stage, with the music . . . I'm really excited."

For the 25 years she has headed the Maryland Youth Ballet -- now an institution in Montgomery County and Northwest Washington -- Fonseca has always sewn the costumes. When she's not teaching or choreographing or worrying about how to meet the school's $210,000 annual budget, she travels to New York in search of the latest fabric or the perfect accessory.

This is the first year the school will perform "The Nutcracker," a production that, at $50,000, is the most expensive effort yet by the academy, a cooperative of almost 300 youths and 600 adults. Performances will continue through Monday.

Although the pageantry of "The Nutcracker" is cherished by many children and is, for many, the first exposure to the beauty of ballet, it is not on Fonseca's list of great works.

"It's got two things going for it," Fonseca said. "It's a variety show with a Christmas spirit."

Still, Fonseca said, this year's production, as staged by her assistant director, Michelle Lees, is "beautiful.

"The parents are selling advertising in our programs. People give extra money to put on something like this," she said.

After a childhood in Costa Rica, where Russian dancers fleeing their country provided her with rigorous classical training, Fonseca traveled to Los Angeles to study dance. "I didn't like it at all. It was after World War II, Hollywood. Everything was show biz, tap dancing," she said. "I had been trained by Russians!"

She eventually came to the District, where she continued to study dance with the widely respected Mary Day. After moving to Wheaton with her husband, Jaime, she began teaching dance to youngsters. In 1948, she started bringing groups of six children to her basement each week for ballet lessons.

"The kids were so tall they were hitting the ceiling," Fonseca recalled, looking to the spot in the basement where "The Nutcracker" costumes hang.

About 1965, she helped found the school now known as the Maryland Youth Ballet.

After all this time, Fonseca said, she still loves preparing for a ballet. Work on this year's production began in August, when she spent two weeks sketching her ideas.

"When I see the costume, I don't see the costume," Fonseca said. "I see the girl."

In October, a month that brought the death of one of her sons, she began turning $5,000 worth of satin and lace into costumes. About 10 volunteers make periodic visits to her house, Fonseca said, to assemble the costumes. All their efforts are "out of love," she said.

"My love is for the school and these kids," Fonseca said.

Earlier this week, as she helped paint the glitter on one of the last tutus, helper Rebecca Gallerizzo said: "The kids love these costumes. I have three {kids} in the show, and they know someone took the time just for them."

So, when Anna Smith talks of hearing the music on stage and becoming that graceful, storybook Snow Queen, Fonseca smiles and says, "That's what I like. That's why I do it."