Conventional wisdom has it that old Claras never grow up to amount to much in the ballet world, they just fade away; likewise old Fritzes.

But as "The Nutcracker" covers the land, that theory is being blown out of the water. Claras and Fritzes do frequently grow up into beautiful ballerinas and handsome danseurs, who join major companies and even become principal dancers.Meet the "Nutcracker" bunch from Ballet West, among whom are seven former Claras - Belinda Bashore (Washington Ballet), Jennifer Demko (Allentown, Pa.), Lisa Choules (Yuma Ballet), Erin Leedom (Oakland Ballet), Bridget Boutin (Manitowoc, Wis.), and from Salt Lake City, Allison Evans and Melanie Watts.

There are also three former Fritzes - Bruce Caldwell, who's danced every year in "The Nutcracker" here for 30 years or so and is now on staff with the company; James Dlugokinski (Torrington, Ct.) and Cameron McNinch (Ballet Met, Columbus, Ohio).

Some of the company's dancers grew up in communities where "The Nutcracker" was not performed - though such places are becoming harder and harder to find. Some took up dancing too late to qualify for children's roles. But of 38 dancers, 25 have pretty extensive backgrounds in "Nutcrackers" far and wide.

Among Salt Lakers, Raymond Van Mason looks back on childhood days as a party boy and a mouse, and Mel Watts and Allyson Evans ran the gamut from baby buffoon and party girl to soldier, page and corps apprentice in the Flowers and Snow variations. Cyndi Ridler was a soldier, page and Oriental servant with Ballet West. Christie Freebairn danced the Sugar Plum fairy with her home-base Mountain West Ballet of Sandy before joining the company.

Ballet West dancers come from all over, trained in small companies and large. In Torrington, Ct., James Dlugokinsky grew up dancing party boy, Fritz, Nutcracker Prince and the cavalier roles. Wendee Fiedeldey, who hails from Colorado Springs, danced the mirliton and Arabian variations among other things, with the Fountain Valley Dance Theatre there.

For Jean Wolfmeyer School of Dance in Manitowoc, Wisc., Bridget Boutin did angel, soldier, bon bon and Rose in the Waltz of the Flowers - reflective of the different spins that diverse companies put on the classic. Lisa Lockerd also did an off-beat version with the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet - "The Night Before Christmas" - where she was a gingerbread man, candy cane and finally Christmas Fairy.

Girls who ran the full "Nutcracker" gamut, doing almost every role available - buffoon, party girl, candy canes and cookies, pages, soldiers, mice, dolls, Snow and Flowers (give or take a few) include Lisa Choules of the Yuma Ballet Theatre; Sarah Parsons with Boston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet; Jane Wood and Belinda Bashore with Washington Ballet; Alexandra Hahl with Ballet Classique of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tampa Ballet; Erin Leedom, who became a page at age 4 with Oakland Ballet; Rachel del Valle, Nevada Dance Theatre; and Virginia Hagood, in South Carolina and Houston.

Men who did it all as boys, from party boy to Sugar Plum Cavalier, are Kristopher Payne, nurtured by the Nina Marlow School of Ballet in Phoenix; Richard Bradley with Oakland Ballet; and Christopher Young with Santa Clara Ballet.

Cameron McNinch had a more peripatetic experience, beginning as a party boy and Fritz with Ballet Metropolitan in Columbus, Ohio (ages 11-13), progressing through Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (16-18), and guesting with the American Ballet Company of Stamford, Conn. before coming to Ballet West.

These dancers are all part of the American dream, that you can grow up to be what you want to be, if you work hard enough - even Claras and Fritzes.