The Nutcracker Ballet for Children – explanations, lessons, craft & more

By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha BelleroseB.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)

The Nutcracker Ballet, is a beloved holiday tradition, is often a child’s gateway to ballet. With its magical storyline and timeless score, it is a great first ballet for children, both as audience members and as performers. Many children who were not previously enrolled in ballet or dance classes find themselves inspired to study dance after seeing performances of The Nutcracker Ballet.

The Nutcracker Ballet is definitely a ballet you can take children to see. Though there are a variety of different readings of The Nutcracker, with deep interpretations, for children, the Nutcracker Ballet is just pure magic. 

Read on for more about how you can make your child’s first Nutcracker experience fun and enjoyable for your whole family, plus activities that can help you have Nutcracker holiday magic all December long!

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At what age should I bring my child to The Nutcracker Ballet?

Only you as a parent can decide if your child is ready to see a ballet, and every child is different. A full production of The Nutcracker is a nearly three-hour event. Most children under the age of about eight are not able to sit still for that long, though there are certainly some exceptions. However, many companies offer abridged versions and student productions also offer opportunities to see The Nutcracker in less time, making it more appropriate for younger children. At three years old, my daughter was able to enjoy a production that was designed for young audiences. 

Theater tips for Kids

Shorter productions may run without an intermission, so it is a good idea to bring your child to the restroom before the show begins. If there is an intermission, I suggest getting up out of your seat and walking around to help your child to be able to continue to sit during Act II. While it’s not a good idea to eat in your seat in the theater, intermission is also a great time for a lobby snack. It is my personal experience that hangry kids are scary and some crackers or a granola bar to prevent that are absolutely worth it. 

How should I prepare for a trip to see The Nutcracker Ballet?

It helps when children know what to expect, so it definitely helps to prepare them with a conversation about what audiences do:  “Audiences watch performances quietly and clap when the performers are finished.” If The Nutcracker is indeed your child’s first experience at the ballet, it is helpful to explain beforehand that the performers will be telling the story with their bodies so there will be no talking onstage.


1. Reading 

I recommend reading the story of The Nutcracker with your child before attending the ballet. There are a number of picture book retellings of the story, like this one by Rachel Isadora, or Valeria Docampo’s illustrated retelling of Balanchine’s version. Caldecott winner Susan Jeffers has this version, and everyone loves a good pop-up book! Independent readers might like this version, while The Story Orchestra includes music too! I got this pop-up book as a kid and still use it when I teach, though, in recent years, my kindergarten students have started to comment about how “old” my book is!

Click on any of the images to see them on Amazon.com


2. Listening to The Nutcracker Ballet score

Listening to The Nutcracker’s score before heading to the theater is also an excellent way to prepare. Ask your child how the music makes them feel, or what they notice about what they hear. Playing the music frequently, whether at home or in the car, will help your child develop familiarity with it, and excitement will only grow from there!


3. Craft Activities – keep The Nutcracker Ballet magic going all season long?

One way to keep up your family’s excitement after seeing a performance of The Nutcracker is to make some crafts that connect to the ballet. Popular choices include using clothespins to make Nutcracker Clothespin Soldiers and Sugar Plum Fairy Peg Crafts. There are also Fingerprint ornaments, which make a great keepsake, Nutcracker Popsicle Crafts, a Paper Plate Nutcracker Craft with Handprint Beard, Cork, and Clothespin Nutcracker Ornament, and Popsicle Stick Ballerinas. Here is also a free downloadable puzzle.

If you’d prefer to be creative in the kitchen, try your hand at making Sugar Plums!

Not crafty? Fear not. My colleague Vanessa Salgado has created the Crafterina series, which includes a Nutcracker Coloring and Craft Book and these Nutcracker Printable Crafts.


4. Creative Dance Activities for The Nutcracker Ballet

After you’ve seen the ballet, put on your own living room version! The Nutcracker offers many opportunities for young dancers to explore movement qualities and body actions, while also using their imagination. Read the story again and take time to pause and dance too!

MARCHING

Soldier toys March and Kick. Practice Marching, either with hands on the hips or opposition arms, practice marching backward, older children can practice looking over the shoulder of the leg that is up. Practice Kicking with straight arms out to the side like a letter T and kicking with straight legs and pointed feet.


MICE

Mice are very very sneaky. Creep around at middle and low levels, very quickly so you don’t get caught! Children also love to use their hands to make little mouse whiskers!


SNOW

The snow music is very light. Dance lightly like falling snowflakes, make snow angels, play with pretend snowballs (that has nothing to actually do with the Nutcracker but it is so much fun!)


SPANISH CHOCOLATE

I love to use this music for galloping around the space in all directions. 


ARABIAN COFFEE

This music is slow, so it is great for smooth, stretchy movement. Try words like reach, stretch, and balance at low, middle, and high levels.


CHINESE TEA

This music is great for jumping! How many different ways can you jump? Two feet to two feet, one foot to one foot, two feet to one foot, one foot to two feet? Backward? Sideways? With feet together and apart (like a jumping jack, or in ballet, an écheppé)


RUSSIAN TREPAK/CANDY CANE

Everyone loves this tune! I love leaping to it, either over objects placed around the room or just in empty space. Since Balanchine’s version of this piece uses hoops, it can be fun to leap over hoops or explore different ways of relating to hoops. 


DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY

Do a light and regal Sugar Plum Fairy Dance! (In my classes I try to avoid too much princess talk, but sometimes you just need to embrace it). If you have one available, or a good substitute, maybe explore dancing with a magic wand!


5. How to Extend Your Learning of the Nutcracker Ballet

Although dance is fleeting, after you’ve seen the performance, there is a good chance that your child will want to watch more at home. There are ballet recordings of The Nutcracker as well as some movie adaptations. New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and Pacific Northwest Ballet all have online versions available for viewing. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Barbie in the Nutcracker, The Carebears Nutcracker, and Nutcracker Fantasy are all movies inspired by The Nutcracker that offer enjoyment for different age groups. Disney’s On Pointe traces the journey of young ballet students, including the casting and rehearsal process for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet. Dancers in upper elementary school and older might develop a deeper appreciation for dancers on stage after watching this documentary series.

Click on any of the images to see them on Amazon.com

The Nutcracker was composed by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. You might learn a little bit about him, and some of his other ballets, like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty

The Nutcracker was also adapted for big band by David Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, called The Harlem Nutcracker. It is fun to listen and dance to and to notice which melodies from Tchaikovsky are super clear in the jazzy interpretation, which is also depicted in this book.

While exploring The Nutcracker, or any ballet, don’t forget to follow your child’s lead. Offer suggestions or questions, but let their curiosity and imagination guide you and you will have tons of fun exploring together!

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About the Author

Danielle Pierce-Master

Danielle Pierce-Master has taught dance in the New York City Metro Area since 2004, working with children from 18 months and up. She trained in Dance Pedagogy at the Creative DanceCenter in Seattle and has an MA in Dance Education from New York University. Danielle lives in Westport, Connecticut with her husband and two children.