The Nutcracker Doll
Mary Newell DePalma
Arthur A Levine Books/Scholastic 2007

The Nutcracker Doll is the story of a young ballet student who auditions for a part in The Nutcracker Ballet.

Pre-Reading Activities

Begin a discussions with the students with any of these questions:

  • Does anyone in the class take dance lessons?
  • Do your family or friends dance?
  • How do you think dancing is different from walking?
  • Tell us about/show us a movement from a dance you know or have seen.
  • Describe the music you heard during the dance.

Ballet is a specific kind of dance.

  • Have you taken a ballet class? Tell us about what you learned there.
  • Have you seen a ballet performance in the theatre or on tv?
  • What kinds of movements did you see the dancers do?
  • What words might you use to describe ballet movements?
  • How do you think ballet dance movements are similar to (or different than) the other kinds of dance that you have seen?
  • It is difficult to be a ballet dancer. Do you have any ideas why it is difficult?
    (Ballet dancers need to be strong, flexible, expressive, keep time to the music, remember their parts...etc.)
  • Ballet dancers are always rehearsing and training. Their muscles need to be strong. What other kinds of activities require training and practicing? (sports, music...)

Have any of the students attended a Nutcracker performance? Or are they planning to attend a performance?

  • Sometimes, in a dance, stories are told. The Nutcracker Ballet is an example of this.
    Dancers do not speak during a ballet. There are no words used at all.
  • How do you think a story is told without using words?
  • Use your face and body (no words!) to tell a classmate a story--for example, that you've lost your shoe; you are going to the grocery store; you will play baseball after school...
  • Remember to show your feelings in the story--you're sad about your shoe, going to the grocery store is a boring chore, you're excited to play baseball...
  • Can you think of simple gestures/pantomime that we use everyday?
    (Some examples might be "come here," "no," be quiet," etc.)

Was the performance in a theatre?

  • Describe what you saw at the theatre.
  • How did you think it was different than a movie theatre?
  • How do you think a live performance on a stage is different than a movie or TV show?
  • What is different between performing live onstage and being an actor in a movie?
  • How do you think it feels to be a performer (instead of an audience member)?

What kinds of things do you think you need for a performance onstage?
(costumes, makeup, sets/props, lights, music, ticket sales, ushers...)

  • What kinds of skills do you think you would need to make sets?
    (carpentry, painting, engineering...)
  • What kind of skills would the wardrobe department need?
    (designers, seamstresses, 3-D model builders, fitters, dressers, laundry...)
  • What kind of skills would lighting the theatre require?
    (electricians, lighting designers, people who operate each light...)
  • look at a ballet playbill and see the jobs listed:
    creative director, stage manager, composer, choreographer, prop manager, etc. Many people are needed to create a theatre production.
  • See the interviews with the set and costume designers at

What kinds of music did you hear?

  • Was there an orchestra playing the music?
  • Did you hear them 'warm up'? What do you think that means? How did that sound?
  • What instruments might you see/hear in an orchestra?
  • What do you think the conductor of the orchestra does?
    (Leads the musicians so that they are all playing together, signals the beat, signals for the muscians to play louder or softer, faster or slower. Watches the stage to be sure that the dancers and musicians are together...)

There is no such thing as an unimportant part! Talk about the different roles in the ballet.

  • Some parts are small, like the doll roles. But suppose they were missing? Would the ballet be different?
  • Suppose there were no sets, or lights, or costumes…
  • Think about sports teams, like a baseball team. All parts are important! Could you have a team without a first baseman? Or a catcher? Or a coach? Or the trainer? Or the bat boy? What about the TV cameraman, or the person that sells the hot dogs?


There are many different character roles in a ballet. This book is about Kepley, who plays a doll role in The Nutcracker. The year that Kepley performed in the ballet, there were 14 doll roles. There were 4 casts of dolls. How many children had the role of doll?

Consider the information on the chart below and answer these questions:

  • Kepley is 4'3" tall. She is 8 years old, and takes the Level 2 ballet class. Figure out which roles Kepley could audition for.
  • Measure your own height and the height of the other students in your class. Figure out which roles you would be able to audition for.
  • How many children's roles are there?

Many children’s roles are cast by the size of the dancer—so that they will be able to fit the existing costumes! The costumes are designed to be able to be adjusted a bit. Ask the students if they've ever needed to have their slacks hemmed, or a waistband taken in or out. Talk about how buttons, belts, hooks, etc., can be used to adjust the size of a pieceof clothing.

  • There is one costume for each different doll. If there are four different casts of each doll role, figure out how many children will share each costume.
  • Look around at your classmates. Guess which children are so near the same size that they might be able to share a costume?
  • Measure the height and waist and arm length of children in your class
  • Draw a chart of the results, and figure out if your guesses were right.
  • Try to figure out ways in which the size of a costume could be adjusted.
    (hemming, different buttons on the waist, etc.)

Dancers learn to count the beats in a piece of music so that they all are dancing the same steps at the same time. Musicians learn to play music at a certain tempo so that the dancers will be able to dance to the music. Sometimes the orchestra does play faster or slower and the dancers have to adjust to keep up!

  • Listen to a piece of music from The Nutcracker
  • find the beat within the music.
  • Tap and count to the beat.

There are many vocabulary words to become familiar with!

  • Act
  • Audition
  • Backstage
  • Cast
  • Choreographer
  • Composer
  • Costume
  • Dresser
  • Measure (musical)
  • Musical Score
  • Orchestra
  • Pantomime
  • Performance
  • Prop
  • Tempo
  • Theatre
  • Time signature
  • Scene
  • Stage
  • Stage door
  • Role
  • Wings

Ballet dance vocabulary

  • Arabesque
  • Chasse
  • Pirouette
  • Pas de deux
  • Plie
  • First position
  • Second position

The Nutcracker Ballet is based on the original fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It might be interesting to read the story and compare it to the ballet.

Each ballet that stages the Nutcracker has its own variation of the story. Kepley danced in the Boston Ballet version. If you see the Boston Ballet performance, you will notice that during the Party Scene in Act 1, Clara receives toy dolls for Christmas which are placed under the Christmas tree. These dolls come to life in Clara’s dream, and this is the doll role that Kepley plays. Many of these life-size dolls are stolen by giant mice in the dream. Later in the dream, the roles of these various dolls are danced by grown-up dancers. They are the dancers in the Palace of Sweets. Look for the dances of the Flowers, Tea, Marzipan, Coffee, Russian, Chocolate, and Sugar Plum. You will see that all of the grown-up dolls have similar costumes to the child dolls.

How is language used in my story?

Words for feeling:

  • What do you think the girls are 'saying' when they are ‘bouncing, fidgeting, and giggling’?
  • Kepley's insides 'felt funny' as she lined up for the audition.
    Talk about times when you might have felt like that.
  • What does the phrase 'Kepley's heart was thumping' mean?
    When does your heart thump?
  • What do you think the phrase ‘cocoon of the wings’ mean?
    How do those words make you feel?


The Nutcracker ballet shows a Christmas celebration. Look at what the dancers are wearing, what the sets look like, listen to the music, and see if you can figure out the time period and some of the Christmas traditions that are shown in the ballet.

  • Try and figure out when the story happens--modern times? a long time ago? How long? What are the clues that help you to figure this out?
    (examples: In the Boston Ballet production, there is a lamplighter. What is a lamplighter?! The presence of the lamplighter as well as the women's fashions, among other things, indicate that this does not take place in modern times)
  • How do you think the clothes in the party scene are different from clothes you might wear to a party? How do you think they are still the same?
  • The Christmas party in the Nutcracker takes place at a very grand house. Look for the clues that show us that this is true. (Servants, grand gifts and entertainments)
  • Are there any parts of the Christmas celebration that are similar to ways that your family celebrates holidays? What might those be?
    (examples: gift exchange, Christmas tree, special meal)


Ballet training uses many muscles. Have a ballet student in the class demonstrate some ballet exercises, such as a plie.

  • Try the exercise.
  • Feel the muscles in your arms and legs when you do this exercise
  • Each time you move, at least one muscle contracts (shortens) and another one extends (lengthens). Figure out which muscles became shorter and which became longer when you moved a certain way.
  • Look up muscles in an encyclopedia or a book in the library. All muscles have names.

When Kepley steps onto the stage, the book reads “Kepley…stepped into the warm lights.”

  • Why do you think is it warm in the lights?
  • Look at the illustrations that show what Kepley can see from the stage. Can you think of reasons why Kepley can’t see anything beyond the first row?
  • Why do you think that Kepley feels the music in her chest?
  • Why do you think the stage shakes underfoot?


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music for The Nutcracker.

  • Listen to the music.
  • How would you describe the difference between say, the music in the Party Scene and the music for the Battle Scene?
  • Can you hear different moods in the music? Describe how a piece of The Nutcracker music makes you feel.
  • Different instruments can create different moods. What do you think the connection is between the instrument and the mood?
  • Which instruments can you identify by their sound?
  • Listen for the tempo of the music—when it is fast and when it is slow.
  • Imagine your own movements to the music.

Examine a copy of The Nutcracker's musical score. Musicians can read a musical score, it is like a code or a language. It looks very complicated. But just like you learned to read by learning the alphabet first, it is made up of simple elements.

  • The staff are the lines and spaces where the music is written.
  • When a note is in a particular place on the staff, it represents a particular sound.
  • The shape of the note tells us how long the sound lasts.
  • Find a note. Find notes that are connected.
  • A measure is the space between the vertical lines on the staff.
  • Can you figure out how many beats per measure?
  • Tap and count to the beat.
  • What is the time signature?


When you are at the The Nutcracker Ballet performance, try to notice the lighting. The set for the party scene and the battle scene is the same room, but the light (and the scale of the furniture) changes. The light during the party scene is bright and happy. The light changes when the guests go home and Clara falls asleep and begins to dream. Light is important in pictures. It helps to describe the mood of the scene.

  • Draw a scene, such as a room or an outdoor space. Copy the picture. Color each picture differently. In one version, make it bright and happy. In another, make it look spooky and mysterious.
  • The kinds of furniture, costumes, etc., illustrate the time period of the story. Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker opens with an outdoor scene. How do you think this scene would look different if it were showing a street scene of people Christmas shopping this year?
    (example: might be cars or taxis, strings of lights, electric signs...)
  • Draw a picture of your idea of what 'The Palace of Sweets' should look like.
  • Make paper dolls of your favorite ballet characters
  • Make costumes for your paper dolls
  • Make a 3-dimensional diorama of your favorite scene from the ballet
  • Make a flip-book of a character from the ballet doing a dance step


The story of the Nutcracker is the story of a dream. Sometimes it is wonderful, sometimes it is scary, sometimes it is funny, and sometimes it is sad. Impossible things happen in dreams—like Clara’s dolls coming to life and giant mice stealing them.

  • Think about dreams you have had.
  • Talk about how your dreams can make you feel—scary, sad, happy, silly
  • Talk about different parts of the Nutcracker—do you remember sad, scary, happy parts?
  • Could you make a ballet or a story about one of your dreams?
  • What impossible things happen in your dreams?

Goals for Active Participation

In The Nutcracker Doll, Kepley was able to do something very exciting. Do you participate on a team or have you acted in a play? Do you sing in a choir? Do you play an instrument? Do you have a special skill? Would you like to try something new? What are your goals? How did Kepley achieve her goal?

Here is a list of things that are helpful to do if you would like to achieve a goal. Can you find examples in the story of Kepley doing these things?

  • Decide what you want to do
  • Prepare—Learn about the activity. Take a class, gather information, observe skilled practitioners, imitate them, imagine yourself doing well.
  • Stick with it!—practice, practice, practice. Learn from your mistakes.
    Try to understand the specific ways in which the skills of more advanced students are different than yours. Have a conversation with a friend about what you are learning.
  • Audition—try out, be brave! Show your skills. Stretch to do the best you can.
  • More PreparationObserve teachers carefully. Practice. Bring your own special personality to the task. Read current books or magazines about the subject.
  • Perform! Do your very best, be reliable. You’re ready!!

Additional historical/factual information can be found on