After years of dancing dolls and Sugar Plum Fairies, Noreen Poppell is still not tired of her annual "Nutcracker" production.
The director of Ballet Conservatory and Destin School of Music & Dance has brought the timeless holiday classic to the stage for more than 20 years, yet each year she can't help but get emotional.
"I get choked up just talking about it," Poppell said. "I love all of these kids. I've watched them grow from these little seeds and I'm so proud of them."
Every year, students get the chance to shine on stage in "The Nutcracker." Everyone has a role to fulfill, even the 3-year-olds, who typically play the mice.
"The talent is homegrown," Poppell said. "All of the children have grown up with our school and studio. We have parts for anyone three and older."
Since September, students have been putting in plenty of rehearsal hours throughout the week and even weekends — but you won't hear them complain.
"This is my favorite time of the year," said 15-year-old Cassidy MacDonald, who will be dancing during "Waltz of the Flowers." "'The Nutcracker' always gets me in the Christmas spirit."
During crunch time, getting to opening night is a group effort.
"We're like a family," Poppell said.
From moving props and sets, to helping with hair and make-up, even getting on stage — parents, teachers and students go above and beyond to make the production a success.
"A lot of the dads are in the party scene, where they get to dance with their daughters," Poppell said. "It's very moving to watch."
Kevin MacDonald, a dancer dad, has been a part of "The Nutcracker" family for nine years, watching his daughter Cassidy in the annual production since she was four. While he's happy to help move equipment and sets, he chooses to watch the fun from the audience.
"I could never do that. I don't do well in tights," he joked. "Instead, I enjoy watching her on the stage. It means a lot to the family."
While the story of "The Nutcracker" is certainly not new, the production has seen a few tweaks and changes over the years. Little details such as different costumes and sets help give the ballet a fresh look each year.
"A lot of the credit goes to Noreen," said Brittany Swain, dance instructor. "She makes it different each year by adding and changing parts. It keeps the ballet exciting."
Tickets for "The Nutcracker" are $20 at the door or $15 presale. Proceeds raised help fund the production, but also provides scholarships to Ballet Conservatory and Destin School of Music and Dance.
If "The Nutcracker" is not already part of your holiday festivities, it might be time to take a break from the 24-hour "A Christmas Story" marathon and enjoy a night at the ballet.
"I love the story," said 16-year-old Samantha Savoie, who will dance in both Act I and II as a snowflake and the lead Russian Candy Cane dancer. "It's part of my Christmas and a great event to for the family."
"We always look forward do it every year," added her mom, Jennifer Savoie. "It's our family tradition."
The Nutcracker will be 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20 and 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21 at South Walton High School Auditorium, 645 Greenway Trail, Santa Rosa Beach. Tickets are $20 at the door or $15 in advance. Purchase tickets at floridaballetconservatory.com.