You may find your sleeve tugged with complaints of hunger, thirst, boredom or bathroom needs. For parents unopposed to bribery with junk food, offering a lollipop at the right moment can quiet discontent and buy time.
But if your kids hit a wall and can't settle down, "feel free to leave. Don't make it torture," said Attaway. Better to enjoy part of the show and go than to suffer through the whole thing, admonishing a squirmy little body to "Sit still!" while disturbing others.
Still, if they make it through the pas de deux, there's a payoff. "The finale will get them excited again and ready to go home dreaming of sugar plums," said Hunter.
HUM A FEW BARS
Many passages from Tchaikovsky's soaring score are so well-known that even people who've never seen the ballet recognize the music: the march from the party scene, the waltz of the snowflakes, and of course the dance of the sugar plum fairy, with the bell-like tones of an instrument called a celesta, the pizzicato (plucked) violins, and the mellow bass clarinet and other woodwinds.
In fact, that magical sugar plum melody has turned up so often over the decades in everything from "Fantasia" to Verizon ads that your kids may already know it. But additional listening to "The Nutcracker" soundtrack at home can only add to their enjoyment of the performance.
That said, you needn't arrange a formal concert in your living room. One family makes an easygoing tradition out of playing the music in the background while decorating their tree.
WHAT IS A NUTCRACKER?
Some people collect them, some display them, some ask for one as a wedding gift. But few people use nutcrackers on a daily basis. Most kids won't know what they are. Does it matter?
Yes and no. You can explain what they're for, maybe even show how they work if you own one and have an unshelled pecan lying around. But don't sweat it, says Attaway: "It's one of those pieces of information that's totally obsolete." To understand the ballet, all they need to know is that the nutcracker in the show "is a toy or a doll. That's how Clara looks at it."
MANY VERSIONS OF THE CLASSIC
If your child isn't ready for a traditional, full-length version of the classical ballet, you may be able to find an abridged performance, a dance school offering highlights or even a puppet show with dialogue. There are also alternate versions set in the present and even "Nutcracker on Ice" shows. Make sure kids know that the production they see might differ from the story they read.
Some dance companies have events for kids with souvenirs and backstage tours. The Houston Ballet hosts a party of cookies and punch where children can meet performers and take pictures with them.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Finally, here's a summary of "Nutcracker" prep from a young lady far wiser than her years. Ellie Eikenburg, age 9, has been going to see the Houston Ballet "Nutcracker" since she was 2. Ellie's advice is as follows:
?"Go with your family."
—"Get all dressed up like a person in 'The Nutcracker,' like the sugar plum fairy or a ballerina."
—"Read the book 100,000 times before you go. There are many different versions of the book, so it can be confusing."
—"Make sure you are quiet or the ushers will hush you and ask you to leave."