For the first time, the Columbia Figure Skating Club's annual "Nutcracker on Ice" performance is going on the road, and will include 60 Prince George's figure skaters from the Gardens Figure Skating Club in Laurel for two performances Dec. 21.
Although some performers are seasoned competitors, others are members of Howard County's new Special Olympics ice skating team, which practices at the Gardens Ice House. For this production, those skaters are taking their first steps on the ice without a walker.
"It really motivates our athletes, exceeds our expectations and pushes them to the next level," said Bob Baker, director of Special Olympics for Howard County. "Our athletes want to be like everyone else and fit in."
After more than six weeks of rehearsals, skaters ages 3 to 50 will perform the story of Clara and her magical dreams one Christmas Eve.
Set to the music of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," the performance will feature double and triple axels along with a life-size jack-in-the-box that will spring into action.
"It's going to be spectacular," said Patricia Muth, the show's artistic director, who has been with the Columbia skating club since 1971. "It's a lot of the same skaters from previous years, and they've gotten very good. The skating and quality of the choreography is the best we've ever done."
The show, which sells out almost every year, is performed by the Columbia club, a nonprofit member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which is based in the Oakland Mills Village Center.
"Each year [the performance] gets bigger," Muth said. "We started with 40 [skaters], and now it's 140."
About a dozen years ago, Muth came up with the idea of performing "The Nutcracker" after seeing her daughter -- Martha Muth, now 38 and the show's choreographer -- perform in Dorothy Hamill's "Nutcracker on Ice" in Minneapolis.
The Columbia production has become a community effort, with parents and grandparents of the skaters volunteering to make costumes, create sets and sell tickets.
"When the kids see their parents supporting them, it becomes something you're doing as a family even though the kids are the performers," said Lynda Pfeferstein, whose 15-year-old daughter, Ryann, has performed in the show since she was 5.
Ryann, who will be Clara in this year's performance, said the "Nutcracker on Ice" has been part of her skating routine along with before- and after-school practices for international competition. Being surrounded by friends and family makes the "Nutcracker" especially enjoyable, she said.
"It's more fun than being nervous," said Ryann, who attends Hammond High School.
For Special Olympic skater Matthew Ardisana, 12, of Cooksville, "Nutcracker on Ice" is a way to be a part of things. "He doesn't have the luxury to get involved in team sports," said Tom Ardisana, his father. "But with skating, the kids have gone out of their way to include him."
That kind of connection benefits Special Olympic kids, said Judy Proia, coordinator for Howard County's Special Olympics skating program.
"It might hurt for them to put on a pair of skates, but they love the sport so much that they will endure it, and it's so neat to see what they can do when given the opportunity," she said.
Organizers pride themselves on keeping the costuming, scenery and lighting fresh from year to year. Even parents of former performers whose children have grown up and moved away still participate.
"We change half of the costumes every other year so that every year there's a different look," said Pfeferstein, who designs the costumes, which are then made by family members. "It's constantly changing because a lot of the same people come back, and we don't want them watching the same thing."
"Nutcracker on Ice" will be performed at 3 and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at Gardens Ice House, 13800 Old Gunpowder Rd., Laurel. Tickets are $8; children younger than 3 are admitted free. For tickets, call 410-813-4026.