Allison Miller in The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Here it comes—the annual Nutcracker marathon, a grueling race for the corps de ballet. But every year, a few young dancers face a surprising, yet thrilling, new test. With so many performances, directors can create multiple casts, and take a chance on corps members with budding potential. “If I have an up-and-coming corps dancer who's showing growth, dynamism, a new energy and strength," says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, “Nutcracker is an excellent time to give her an opportunity to break out from the ensemble into a more leading role."

But adding a major role like Sugar Plum, Snow Queen, Dew Drop or the Prince to an already exhausting corps schedule is a daunting prospect. Dancing (and keeping pace with) experienced principals means conquering demanding choreography, partnering with finesse and connecting with the audience—tough challenges for those unfamiliar with center stage. But a successful debut can mean further opportunities and an eventual promotion. “If a dancer absorbs the details and refinement of the role, and brings a magical quality to the stage, that says this person is ready to move on to greater roles," says Sklute. Here, four leading dancers share how their Nutcracker breakout led to surprising self-discoveries and launched a new phase of their careers.

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Arantxa Ochoa corrects a student. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Growing up, Houston Ballet soloist Allison Miller often heard teachers compare the feeling you have during pirouettes to a corkscrew. But then her teacher, Diane Partington in Ellenton, Florida, offered up a surprising new analogy. Partington suggested Miller imagine a bank tube—a simple cylinder that uses suction to transport a round canister from a customer's car to the teller. Picturing this straight, narrow tube drawing energy up and into itself struck a chord with Miller. “It worked instantly!" she says. “It clicked in my head and it gave my body the right feeling." Even now, if she needs to refocus her pirouettes, Miller thinks of that image. “If I'm having a bad day, it helps me find my center."

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