Kicking off the holiday season, the New Canaan-based New England Academy of Dance will celebrate its 25th anniversary at New Canaan High School with its fully staged production of "The Nutcracker." Showcasing talented youth, ages six to 18, the show is choreographed by school directors, twin sisters Ginna and Frances Ortiz and Ted Thomas.

Performances are Friday, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4, at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, at 1 and 4 p.m.

"This year's Nutcracker is different in many ways. For our 25 anniversary, we are giving away 900 free tickets to kids that cannot afford to otherwise attend," Thomas said. "These kids are in crisis situations and they are also children of new immigrants to our area. We have involved about 15 different non-profits in lower Fairfield County. It's important to share our love of dance and the magic of Christmas with everyone, regardless of their socio-economic situations."

Thomas pointed out that the New Canaan dance company is staging the Nutcracker in its entirety, using all of Tchaikovsky's stirring music. It is one of the few venues in southern Fairfield County staging the full-length version of the ballet, which has become a staple of the holiday season.

The first show on Sunday is dedicated to New England Academy of Dance's special guests.

Staff member Brittany Whaley explained that the dancers enjoy giving back to the community by offering a complimentary performance for invited guests from social service agencies and assistant living facilities. Throughout the year, the young performers perform excerpts from the show in lecture demonstrations held at these different facilities. However, its residents are only able to see "bits and pieces" of the ballet. Moreover, since these short exhibits rarely take place on a fully equipped stage, there is no lighting or professional sound system.

"When they come this weekend, it will be a lot different than what they've seen," Whaley said. "We want to give them the full Nutcracker experience."

Whaley also pointed out that the first show on Saturday, at 11 a.m., is a special Children's Performance. New England Academy of Dance started to offer this one hour event -- which includes a summary of the Nutcracker's first act and most of the second art -- as way to accommodate the younger members of the audience. Whaley said that this show sells out quickly and people interested in attending with their young children should reserve tickets immediately. "When we first started doing a Children's Show, we had no idea what a hit this would be," she said. "It's completely interactive and a great alternative for children who are interested in ballet but cannot sit through the entire performance."

Children will have the opportunity to clap during the Spanish dance and help to make it snow for the Snow Queen and her angels. Children portraying the Candy Canes also come out into the audience to distribute treats to the young theater goers. "It's really a lot of fun," Whaley said.

This year one of the Nutcracker's major roles, the Sugar Plum Fairy, is played by a New Canaan High School junior, Linnea Swarting. "This is really an advanced role and usually an older dancer plays it," Whaley said.

However, like many of the company's senior dancers, Linnea has been studying ballet at the school for several years and this year marks her tenth year as part of its Nutcracker ensemble. "I remember when she first started coming as a baby," Whaley said. "We all used to braid her hair. She was so cute. And, now she is one of our lead dancers."

Linnea said she is "thrilled" to be portraying one of the most well-known roles for a ballerina. "It is truly a privilege and a fantastic experience," she said. "From my early years dancing the roles as a Bon Bon, Ginger Cookie, Candy Cane or Flower, it was always my goal to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. It is such a great feeling to look at those little girls now who are playing those parts and see how I've grown up and changed as a dancer."

New England Academy of Dance was founded 25 years ago by Doris Driver. In 2004, she sold the business to the Ortiz sisters. Ginna commuted from New York City to teach for Driver at the New Canaan School until she was asked to go on tour with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Her sister Frances then replaced her as a teacher. "Doris gave them both many opportunities over the years to choreograph and lead small groups of students. When it came time for her to retire, it was only natural that the school's ownership transition over to them," Whaley explained. "Doris is still close to all of us. To the directors, she is like one of their family."

Since taking the reins five years ago, Ginna said that she's amazed at the school's overall growth. "We are so proud of our dancers and are really thankful to be celebrating this milestone performance," Ginna said. "We anticipate that this is going to be our best Nutcracker to date."

Tickets for The Nutcracker may be purchased online at neadance.com or at New Canaan High School. Ticket prices are $50, patron; $25, adult; $15, children, students and seniors; group sales for ten or more, $15, and the Saturday, 11 a.m. Children's Show, $10. For more information, e-mail nutcrackertickets@yahoo.com.