The carpeted hallway leading to "The Nutcracker" rehearsal room was lined with proud mothers reading, gossiping and exchanging recipes. It was almost time for the photo shoot.
Every weekend since late October, these women have made the drive to Cal State Los Angeles from as far away as Mission Viejo and Simi Valley, bringing their slight, young daughters to dance with the Joffrey Ballet. Of the 67 children who will be in the production, five are from the Ventura County area.
On one side of closed double doors sat the mothers. On the other side, their girls flitted across the wooden floor, practicing to be tree angels \o7 sans\f7 the $2,000 silvery costumes, wings and wigs.
The mirrored front wall reflected their erect stances. Toes were pointed, elbows jutted out, heads were held high, expressions were austere. Most wore the uniform of black leotard, light-colored tights and ballet slippers. Hair was tucked into the requisite knot. All trotted around the room in choreographed unison to the notes of the Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky score being played on the grand piano.
The girls lined up ambitiously in threes. But their formation was not quite straight enough for Lori Eckenweiler, the children's ballet mistress. Opening night for the Joffrey, one of three major companies in the country, was only four rehearsals away.
"Let's do it perfectly, exactly together," a stern Eckenweiler called out. An instructor for the past decade, the thin, pretty blonde woman has danced in more than 100 different productions of "The Nutcracker."
Being chosen to perform with the renowned Joffrey Ballet makes Amie Johnson, 11, of Westlake Village feel important. "I like showing people that I can dance," she said. "I get nervous but I haven't really made any mistakes on stage, thank goodness."
Amie is one of the five local girls who made the cut. Some 200 children, aged 9 to 13, auditioned.
"It's like every little girl's dream to be a ballerina and I might some day be able to do it," said Lori Krug, 13, of Westlake Village. "I'm dancing on a real stage now."
Three of the five area girls started taking ballet classes at the age of 3, as soon as they were physically able to concentrate on learning the steps. In between weekend rehearsals, they go to school, take ballet classes and try to fit in homework. They dance around their living rooms given the chance.
Just ask them and they'll tell you, with eyes wide, that they want to be professional ballerinas, maybe even famous ones. If not ballerinas, then perhaps actresses. Something on stage.
"I want to be known for my dancing," said Lori, who already has plans to major in dance at UCLA. This year, her third time dancing in the Joffrey's "Nutcracker," she will play the part of a mouse in the first act, and a \o7 polichinelle\f7 in the second act.
Each girl has a vision of the good ballerina she is striving to become. The composite picture looks like this: She must have high self-esteem. She keeps going when things are hard. And she must exude character when she dances, acting out her part with feeling and technique.
These girls are truly disciplined. They don't mind sacrificing food, television or going to the mall with friends.
"I'll give up anything," said Kristyn Abbadini, 10, of Simi Valley.
Amie gave up being a Girl Scout, yet she has found the time to be school president at Westlake Elementary and earn A's in her classes, as have most of the others. "Dancing takes up a lot of my life," she said.
Kara Jean Turner, 11, of Newbury Park has only been taking ballet classes for three years, but she is advanced enough to be playing a tree angel for her second year in the Joffrey production.
"I like to go to the higher classes and take a challenge and try new steps," she said. "I try not to get discouraged and sometimes it's hard, but I keep going."
Elizabeth Schnuelle, 12, of Westlake Village was able to focus on dancing at an early age.
"When I was little," she said, "I used to dance around the house and my mom enrolled me in dance lessons."
But Elizabeth, who plays a lead mouse, said her mother hasn't been her main motivator. "I wanted to (dance)," she said.
Kristyn's mother has been there for her when Kristyn had stage fright. "Last year, I kind of got sick," she said of her first Joffrey production. "I went on stage anyway. My mom pushed me up there."
* WHERE AND WHEN
"The Nutcracker" will run from Dec. 18 to 29, with 16 performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center. Ticket prices range from $9 to $48.