Every December, sugarplums dance through the heads of people who may never see dance the rest of the year.

The dozens of dancing children, charming Victorian scenes, Tchaikovsky music, and snow wafting on stage make Nutcracker a holiday standard so many love to see year after year.

And ballet companies and schools love them back.

"It's the anchor for our whole season," said Donna Muzio, artistic director of the Brandywine Ballet in West Chester and director of the Dance Center, the company's school.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 people will see her show this year at West Chester University's Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall.

For many people - audience members as well as baby ballerinas - "Nutcracker is their first introduction to the art form," said Roy Kaiser, artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.

His company has performed Nutcracker for nearly 50 years; this is its 25th anniversary of presenting the complete Balanchine version.

"There are a lot of good Nutcrackers out there in the world," Kaiser said, but the Balanchine version is special. "The first act is just charming in every way, and it's a wonderful entree into the second act."

In the early years, various choreographers tackled the first act, but the company always danced Balanchine's Act 2. In 1987, the company opted to go for the full Balanchine production.

" 'Waltz of the Flowers' is just a perfect reflection of that beautiful music," Kaiser said. It has the corps de ballet dancers almost blooming on stage. "And with Dewdrop coming in and out and through, it is the music. You're seeing the music."

Muzio has been presenting more or less the same version of Nutcracker (not the Balanchine version) even longer.

"This is our 33d Nutcracker," she said. "The school started about 38 years ago, but we didn't start Nutcracker right away."

To keep things interesting for audiences, dancers, and artistic staff, Muzio adds new sections of choreography every other year and two new sets of costumes every year. This year's production features new choreography and costumes for the snow scene, as well as new costumes for the Chinese dance.

It is her largest Nutcracker to date, with 60 company members, 55 students, three casts, and eight performances. Of the company, four are full-time professional dancers and the rest are semiprofessional, including a group pursuing a certificate in ballet through a program with Brandywine Ballet and West Chester University, where they must also be enrolled in an undergraduate degree program.

At Pennsylvania Ballet, there are also changes in Kaiser's cast. The children's roles have always been filled through open auditions, but this year, 92 students from the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet were cast in many of the 120 children's roles, as well as a few of the corps dances.

"With a couple of exceptions, I did not know which were our kids" when they auditioned, Kaiser said. "I'm very, very pleased, but that wasn't a goal when we walked into the audition."

This weekend starts Nutcracker season for both companies. Brandywine opens Friday night and runs through Dec. 16. (Tickets are $25 to $40. Information: 610-696-2711, www.brandywineballet.com.)

The Pennsylvania Ballet Nutcracker opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 30 at the Academy of Music. (Tickets are $20 to $135. Information: 215-893-1999, www.paballet.org.)

The Rock School for Dance Education presents Nutcracker 1776, a colonial American version, Saturday and Sunday at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall. (Tickets are $15 and $25. Information: 610-431-4321, www.therockschool.org.)

Carinthia Bank, 18, of Philadelphia is coming back home to perform in The Nutcracker as a member of the Donetsk Company of Ukraine Dec. 15 and 16 at Plymouth/Whitemarsh High School. (Tickets are $28. Information: 215-849-7950, www.wissahickondance.com.)

South Jersey Ballet Theatre presents its Nutcracker Dec. 14 to 16 at the Voorhees Schools Theater. (Tickets $18. Information: 856-309-8282, www.southjerseyballet.com.)

Not into Nutcracker? Dance presenters are doing some counter-programming as well.

Philadanco, which does a holiday program many years, is presenting . . . back to Black, an evening of work by African American choreographers, Friday night through Sunday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. The program includes Milton Myers' "Echoes: A Celebration of Alvin Ailey," Matthew Rushing's "Moan," Ronald K. Brown's "Exotica," and George Faison's "Suite Otis." (Tickets are $29 to $46. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philadanco.org.)

If all else is tutu serious, the men of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are coming to the Annenberg Center Dec. 13 to 15. The "mallerinas" - pointe shoes and all - will dance "Go for Barocco," an excerpt of Laurencia, and "Le Lac Des Cygnes (Swan Lake, Act 2)." (Tickets are $20 to $65. Information: 215-898-3900 www.annenbergcenter.org.)

Contact Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com.