For many aspiring young dancers, the ultimate dream is to land a spot in George Balanchine's

The Nutcracker

.

A number of Fern Helfond's students, ages 4 to 18, have been given such a chance over the last 16 years. The professional dancer, educator and owner of L'ecole de la Dance, home to the Mount Laurel Ballet Company, has teamed with the Donetsk Ballet Company of Ukraine to bring a unique collaboration to the region.

Choreographer Viktor Yeliohin prepared 20 young ballet enthusiasts to move in unison with 20 of the Ukrainian dancers for this year's matinee and evening performances last Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly.

A professional dancer for more than 45 years, Helfond remembers vividly the first time she attended a Donetsk Ballet Company performance, in the early 1990s. She was so "taken aback" by the artistry of the troupe that she forged a relationship with its members, first by offering them rehearsal space.

Her students have been the big winners. "It gives them a broader scope culturally, as well as the opportunity to dance with world-class professionals," Helfond said. "It raises their level of competency."

Nicole Roberts, 23, of Willingboro, is one such dancer. Trained as a child at the Mount Laurel Ballet, she danced in

The Nutcracker

for 16 years. Today, Roberts works as a dance educator throughout Burlington and Camden counties. "Being right in there with the professional dancers, I was able to see the possibilities of where I could be in the future," said Roberts, who holds a degree in dance performance and education from Towson University. "It gave me the motivation to strive to be an accomplished dancer."

Another enriching opportunity is that a number of families open their homes to host the visiting dancers - providing meals, transportation, and the chance for local students to get to know the Ukrainians on a personal level.

In recent years, the artistic endeavor has also evolved into a community-builder and fund-raiser for Rancocas Valley High School. Three years ago, the Mount Laurel Ballet was looking for help selling tickets and a venue to hold rehearsals and perform, said Deb Hauth, physical education teacher and school alumna. They found a match with Project Graduation, a drug-free, alcohol-free, year-end event for graduating seniors, which Hauth advises.

"Parents of graduating seniors team up to identify ways to raise monies for this special event," said Tanya Jackson, school and community relations coordinator. The 2008 graduates will travel to Manhattan for a nighttime cruise around the island.

Participation in the Christmastime classic takes real commitment.

"Rehearsals begin after Labor Day and take place every Sunday for three hours," says Robyn Hill, a 12-year parent volunteer whose older daughter, Nicole Boenecke, 20, danced

The Nutcracker

from the time she was 8. Daughter Hayley Boenecke, 13, has been at it since age 4.

"It's really exciting," said Hayley, who was cast as Mother Ginger. "I get to see what their lives are like as professional dancers."

Hill said, "I don't know exactly what keeps these kids coming back each year, but there must be something very magical about it."

For Information

To learn more about L'ecole de la Dance, go to

.