A few days ago, I was driving with my two girls when the overture to “The Nutcracker” came on the radio. My 6-year-old drew in her breath with excitement. The curtain was about to go up. She was on the edge of her booster seat with anticipation.

All it takes is music and she can imagine the rest. “The Nutcracker” is our family’s main event from late September through December. It can be exhausting, but it also is so much more.

Any parent whose weekends and evenings and neglected laundry are at the mercy of their children’s schedule knows what I’m talking about. There are some after school activities that grow in significance and become an important part of your own efforts to nurture, educate and give joy to your kids. It’s not just about the ballet, or the soccer game, or whatever it is your family has found. It’s about the friendships and the lessons in hard work. And the love of an activity.

There’s always an answer to the “Why do it?” question hidden in the tapestry of these activities. And I noticed it this year more than ever.

The march started then on the radio. It was my 9-year- old’s turn to gasp. “They’re playing it too fast,” she said from the backseat. The dancers would need a slower tempo, in her opinion.

Both my youngest daughter, who speaks from the heart and has a kinesthetic response to music, and my older one, who relishes precision and discipline, have found a nurturing home as young dancers in the American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

And although dance critics in The Washington Post and The New York Times have sparred over what it means for the state of ballet in this country that companies stage the ballet every year, it’s all new and exciting for them.

To this “dance mom” and her bunheads, the show means much more than what the critics say. “The Nutcracker” is a tradition. In our case, this year is the school’s 51st production.

Holiday traditions, like fruitcakes, grow stale, as they say. But not when the creative heart that first inspired them is linked with the honest energy and life of the people recreating them.

My little mouse is friends with another mouse, whose mother was once a party child in the production. The man snoozing in the lobby while his daughter rehearses wakes up to tell me his wife, “…was Clara. Many times.” The baton gets passed from one generation to another, and while some of the costumes change, much of the choreography is the same. To me, that recreation of movement and action is like reviving a spirit, one that guides us from late September to late December.

The spirit of ensemble is a gift we’re given, and it’s one that cannot be bought or contrived. For many weeks, we’ve lived with a rehearsal schedule, aware that soldiers, mice, party children, and angels work at different times and in separate rooms. Those times are in addition to yet another schedule that the junior and senior company members and the professional dancers keep.

But then, in late November, it all comes together. And my mouse, with her furry costume and whiskers gets swept on stage under Drosselmeyer’s cape. My fourth grader stands in the wings, watching the snow queen and waits for her cue. Something about the tradition of this production informs the ensemble, holding a harmonious balance between the young dancers and the professionals.

That philosophy comes from the production’s founders, and articulated by their daughter, Carol Estey, in a program for last year’s golden anniversary. She wrote, “…it is just as important that a child who loves to dance just for the fun of it be given the chance as the one who has a great career in dance waiting for them.”

And then, another gift. There’s something scary about performing. My 6-year-old expressed it clearly when I took her to her first spacing rehearsal at the McCarter Theatre and she looked at me and said, “I thought we performed in rehearsal room A.” Had I forgotten to mention the proscenium stage, the lights, and the audience of hundreds? She’d sat in that same audience as a younger child, and watched the show from my lap. She’d seen her sister perform the year before. How had this pertinent piece of information not been conveyed during our drives to rehearsal, or when we bought her stage make-up, or prepared her show slippers, or even when I arrived at school early to take her to the theater?

“It is scary,” I said. There was no sugarcoating the truth. Performing is scary. Being away from one’s mom and dad and tossed into a dressing room with a lot of other kids can also be scary. “I believe you can do it,” I told her. Maybe there was magic in Drosselmeyer’s cape because my simple pep talk worked.

I know my fellow parents spend just as many hours, if not more, driving their kids to sports practice, or waking up early to get them to the rink, or sacrificing weekends and vacations to be at gymnastics competitions.

The question, again, is not how you do it but why.

My 9-year-old likes to arrive at the studio early to put her hair in a bun. Another girl, who goes to a different school often arrives early, too. They sit in their pink tights and maroon leotards and wait for class. They giggle. They talk about math homework. They don’t socialize outside of ballet class and rehearsal, but when they are together they have a great bond. One is an angel, the other a soldier. They’ll see each other in the wings.

And whatever is shared in those silent moments, those knowing looks that convey trust and connection to a common goal, whatever your sport or your show, those are the reasons why.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs at The Educated Mom and is an editor at Mindprint Learning. Follow her on Twitter.

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