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Of Meece and Moms

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

When you're trying to harness the energy of thirteen 5- and 6-year-olds, you use whatever you've got.

Luckily for Raleigh Veach, a senior at the Purchase College Dance Conservatory, her tiny charges have tails.

They are Meece, baby mice - in "The Nutcracker" - and it is Veach's job to escort these squirming bundles of energy from the dressing room to the stage.

All across the Lower Hudson Valley in the coming weeks, dancers large and small are being led to the stage in the service of dance and to the delight of thousands of audience members who will never know what it takes to get them there.

It goes way beyond practice, practice, practice. It takes people like Veach, part best friend, part drill sergeant, part role model. She is what they call a "rehearsal assistant."

Needing to get their attention, Veach says: "One, two, three, quiet mouse!"

And there is quiet.

When she needs to get them somewhere, the command is simple: "Grab a tail."

The Meece make one big line behind Veach and grab the tail of the dancer in front of them. Of course, it takes a little coaxing to create what in the end looks like a mouse sausage.

Veach: "Grab a tail! Grab a tail! Come on, Claire. Good girl."

As they are lining up, a costumer notes that a zipper is broken and the costume has to be swapped for one with a zipper that works.

"Everybody got a tail? Ellen, grab a tail, not your own! Somebody else's.

"Jack, grab her tail. Alex, where's your tail? Alex, you grab Claire's.

"Grab a tail, Gabriella."

Down the hall they go, through a labyrinth of cinder-block-walled hallways, down some stairs, up others.

Veach fills the walk with a pop quiz on Meece technique:

"When do we crawl out?"

"What comes after you crawl out and look?"

"What happens after you eat cheese?"

"What comes after you steal the cheese?"

"After you jump up and down, what do you do?"

"Grab tails!" the Meece shout in unison.

"Then what?" Veach asks.

"Walk away," they shout.

"Right, you walk away. On your what?"

"On our tippy toes!" they shriek.

"On your tippy toes! Right!"

One Meece discovers she's forgotten her ballet slippers and there are tears. A helper whisks her back to the rehearsal room and the line of 13 Meece is reduced to a winding dozen, making their way to the Organ Room, a large space just off stage right, where they'll rehearse for about 20 minutes before they go on.

"Voices at a two-inch whisper," Veach says, meaning a whisper you can hear two inches away.

There is a backstage warm-up, in a circle: They reach way up and stretch all the way over. They count their toes. They jump up and down and do jumping-jacks (an exercise for which Meece seem genetically disinclined.)

"You can tell she's not a parent," says Tricia Agosta, a parent volunteer from Rye. "There's no pacifying bratty behavior. She's so sweet with them but she means business. And she's got youthful exuberance."

The Meece have rehearsed once a week since September, with extra practice added as the show weekend approaches.

A brother Meece doesn't want his sister Meece to grab his tail.

"You have to let her grab your tail," Veach says. And he complies.

After the warmup and a quick rehearsal, a stage manager comes in:

"We're ready for the Meece," she says.

The 13 enter from the right and go through their paces on stage, with Veach watching from the wings.

After no more than 10 minutes, the scampering is over. Their scene is done.

Once off stage, the march resumes in reverse, a labyrinth winds back to the dressing room where makeup comes off, costumes come off and street clothes are put on.

Ten minutes later, Veach is back in the dressing room, having just performed. She breezes into the room, a winded Wind Maiden.

"Good job, guys!" she announces, while a knot of Meece, waiting for moms to help them take off their makeup, nibble crackers.

The cracker of choice for Meece?

Cheez-Its, of course.