A memory. A Christmas memory from more than a few years ago - not of the stockings hung with care or the smell of cookies baking, but of a gift. I'll share it with you.

December 1966. Outside, two pine trees stand with stooping shoulders, their fingertip branches just brushing the morning's snow, long since turned to slush on the sidewalk. The sky is half-heartedly trying to be blue, and pale sunlight cuts through the chill of the early winter afternoon. Inside, the studio is warm. Too warm. The combination of temperamental old radiators and overworked bodies has made the air heavy and hot. Dancers are scattered about the hardwood floor in seemingly bizarre positions of stretching; others lean hook-elbowed against the barre, talking in a low buzz.I welcome this brief pause in a taxing three-hour rehearsal and gladly plop to the floor. My feet are blistered. My muscles ache. I feel like a de-boned fish and could not will my body to do one more jete' if my very life hung on it. There's nothing particularly glamorous about a ballet rehearsal.

Mr. C steps into the studio. "Back to work! Come on, babies, you can't get to the big-time sitting on your derrieres. We'll go straight through the second act. With schmaltz this time, please."

There is an almost magical quality about his rich and raspy voice: It lifts our sagging energies and we stand, brushing rosin dust off of our leotards, ready to begin again.

"Oh, before we go on. . . . " Mr. C raps his stick on the floor for attention. "There will be no rehearsal tomorrow afternoon." Puzzled looks are passed from face to face. He continues. "We've been asked to perform at the kiddies' hospital. I'd like the bear and the doll from the first act and the variations from the second act. Do some of you guys want to put on mouse suits? Good. We'll take some mice, too. Any questions? Then let's get back to work." He punches a button on the tape recorder and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" fills the room.

I'm in the Arabian corps. Three variations rehearse before mine, so I steal the time to practice in front of the mirrors lining the north wall of the studio. The three other girls in the corps join me, and we appraise our reflections in the glass. One girl wishes that her elbows weren't so bony. Another wishes that her feet would arch more. And I wish that my legs were a little longer. It's a habit you get into in ballet training, this analysis and criticism of every angle of your body. You hate yourself if your wrists won't relax, blame your grandmother if you inherited her short neck, and every night, faithfully, you sleep like a frog to stretch your turn-out. It becomes an obsession.

We meet at the hospital, quickly dress in costumes and begin warming up. Mr. C steps out to the front of the auditorium and tells the story of Clara and her nutcracker to the children sitting in wheelchairs, propped up on crutches, lying in hospital beds, and then the dancing begins.

First the bear, in checkered pants and brown fur suit. He growls at the mechanical ballerina doll and prances around her in a giddy jig.

Next come the Spanish dancers, leaping and twirling in the air and throwing fiery Latin looks at each other. The children clap their approval. They are taken by the glittering costumes and the surging music.

Then the Chinese dancers pop out, the gold tassels on their pointy hats quivering as they nod their heads in time. The soloist jumps incredibly high, spins his feet in the air as if on an invisible bicycle and struts about with a proper ah-so smirk. Again the children applaud.

We four in the Arabian corps begin our dance with a prayerful pose. Then, at a clap of our Arabian master's hands, we spin away and dutifully display our cloths of pink and gold. Behind one cloth stands the beautiful Arabian princess. She rises like a snake being charmed and slowly, seductively begins wooing our master. We stand behind her, mimicking her swaying and undulating.

I catch the eye of one of the patients, a girl of about 8, lying in bed in a cast from hips to feet. Ropes and pulleys hold her body in a perpetual pratfall. Her eyes are fixed on me.

In the middle of a slither, I am struck by the irony of what I am doing: This little child is crippled, whether temporarily or permanently I don't know, and here am I, flaunting my fine and healthy body, feeling sorry for myself that my legs aren't long enough. Long enough for what?

With a toot of his flute and a flip of the cloth, the master makes the princess disappear! Then, in a whirl of pink and gold, we, too, are gone and nothing remains but the children's soft gasps of wonderment.

After the performance, one of the nurses asks if we can stay long enough to come into the auditorium and talk to the little patients. We all nod. I am drawn to the girl with the broken legs. I walk over to her bed. She reaches up to touch my veil and I touch her hand. She wants to meet the bear, too, and I grab him by his suspenders and pull him over to the bed of my new friend. He gives her three of his best growls and she smiles. I smile, too. I have found an answer and to a question I'd not even asked. This is what "Nutcracker" is really all about. It's about children: to confirm their belief in music and magic, hopes and dreams.

We head for the hospital parking lot with shouts of "can I ride with you?" and "see you tonight."

"Bundle up, kids. Don't get chilled," Mr. C calls like a gruff mother duck to no one in particular. "Take care of yourselves."

An automatic remark. But then, is it? I think Mr. C has known all along what I have just learned: A healthy body is a gift, perhaps the best gift of all.

Sunlight is ricocheting off the powdered crystal snow, and the winter sky has never been more blue. I pull my coat closer around me and jam my hands deep into my pockets. My legs are finally long enough.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

About the author

Why is Linda M. Forsey telling her story in the "Christmas I Remember Best" contest? "Sometimes there is a special moment that in retrospect seems important enough to want to share. And, certainly, a variation of `until I met a man with no legs' is one of those universal themes that can be retold every once in a while, particularly at Christmas where we dream of all the material joys that Santa will stuff in our stocking," Forsey writes.

Forsey danced in three Ballet West productions of the Nutcracker. She has taken several writing classes at the U. of U. and is now enrolled in a children's literature course in the Granite Community Education program.

The author and her husband, John, are parents of one little girl, Sabrina Kate, who is taking ballet lessons at the University of Utah.