BESIDES THE throngs of professionals involved in staging "The Nutcracker" at the Academy of Music, the Pennsylvania Ballet holiday show also requires 108 children. The brood, selected from the company's school, is overseen by Pennsylvania Ballet's recently retired and much revered ballerina Arantxa Ochoa, who is now the school's director.

Ochoa was just 12 herself when she left her Spanish town to attend dance school in Madrid, where the company's new artistic director Angel Corella was a classmate.

She was eventually noticed in New York by Pennsylvania Ballet's Sandra Jennings (now with the Balanchine Trust) and was hired to dance small parts here in - you guessed it - "The Nutcracker," moving up to become a principal dancer.

Ochoa took time from her hectic holiday pace at the company's studio to speak to Daily News arts contributor Tom Di Nardo. "The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 31.

Q What kind of commitment does "The Nutrcracker" require from young dancers?

The children come after school from 6 to 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays. Some do their homework in the car on their way home. They may have to get special permission from school to get here earlier the week before we open, and they have to be brought to all performances.

This is a huge commitment for the parents as well.

Q How do the children respond to rehearsal?

They come eager to learn and be pushed, and they love interacting with the company's dancers and bonding in the dressing rooms.

Some have seen the show since they were babies. All those little girls who had watched the show and dreamed of being part of it are now fulfilling their dream.

Q Do things ever go wrong?

Yes, sometimes they become nervous when they finally see that Academy stage, and then in the dress rehearsal with orchestra and students in the audience.

We tell the kids with hoops what to do if they drop them, the eight kids how to get out from under Mother Ginger's skirt without stepping on it, and the angels how to avoid tripping on their dresses.

Q Did you audition and choose the children?

Not this year, as in past years. Sandra Jennings came this year from the Balanchine Trust, and she chose 103 from the 157 in our school.

The rehearsing is done by Sandra and two former company dancers - John Martin, who teaches at the school and does the angels and battle scene, and Jessica Gattinella, who coaches Marie, the prince and the party scene.

Q How does the School of Pennsylvania Ballet work, generally?

We accept everyone from ages 5 to 8, then by audition for professional levels from 8 to 18. When they're ready, some will become part of the second company, which dances with the company and does outreach programs, and we help some find positions in a major company.

Q Do you hope that all of the children in "The Nutracker" will go on to be dancers?

I tell them from the beginning, this is the best thing that can happen to you. It's not like going to work. But if you don't give 100 percent every day, don't waste your time. You have to need to dance - not just want to dance.

You want them to respect you, not be afraid of you, but you have to learn how much to push and how much to nurture.

Q Don't you miss dancing?

I never thought I'd say it, but no! Now I get to share everything in my experience with these children. Whatever they do in life, they need to learn hard work, discipline, passion.

They are like little jewels, and we must teach them to dance with their soul. Our job is to find it, like a little flame.

This is the best reward, to have a kid think, "She taught me how to be somebody special.