For Jennifer Grapes, owner and director of Hinsdale Dance Academy (HDA) in Westmont, every holiday season should include a performance of “The Nutcracker.” “I have been performing in ‘The Nutcracker’ for more than 20 years and I only missed it one time,” says Grapes. “Missing it that one year really pushed me to create my own production.”
For Grapes, “The Nutcracker” project began four years ago but at the time, the project was much smaller. “We began at The Hinsdale Community House and performed excerpts from ‘The Nutcracker,’” says Grapes. “We rented costumes for that performance.”
The following year, however, proved to be more fortuitous. A ballet company that was closing its doors sold Grapes set designs and costumes for the show. “I was able to purchase the sets and costumes which is a huge investment, but it’s also what creates the magic of the performance,” says Grapes.
The beautiful costumes also work as motivators for up-and-coming performers. “The younger ones see the Clara costume and their little eyes light up because they can’t wait to wear it,” says Grapes. “It’s special.”
Once worn, performers write their initials and the year they wore it inside the costumes. And so began a tradition of discovering who wore what during which performance. “I look forward to watching my younger dancers who began as reindeer grow up into flowers and snow and look back and see where they started and how far they’ve come.”
Traditions like these play an important role at Hinsdale Dance Academy. When she first opened her doors five years ago, Grapes had roughly 80 dancers. In two years, she’s doubled in size and she continues to grow exponentially. This year, she has three casts of children in “The Nutcracker,” including three professional danseurs from the Milwaukee Ballet (Barry Molina, Tim O’Donnell, and Issac Sharratt) who will dance with the HDA students. For Grapes, having professional dancers in “The Nutcracker” is an important part of her students’ experience.
HDA offers a variety of classes including classical ballet, jazz, contemporary/modern, Pilates, tap, adult and teen ballet, and Mommy and Me—all taught by current and former dance professionals. HDA is also one of the only schools in the Chicagoland area to offer the Angelina Ballerina Dance Program. “I love it because it’s a very specific curriculum for 3 to 6-year-olds created by a leading child psychologist and professional dancers,” says Grapes.
Grapes believes in an American approach to ballet which she says was missing from many other instructional approaches. As such, she extracts parts of various ballet styles like Vaganova, Cecchetti, Royal Academy of Dance, Danish and more, and she incorporates them into an American curriculum. “Dance is art and art imitates life. America is the melting pot,” says Grapes. “That’s exactly how American ballet is reflected. It imitates what’s going on in the world today.”
Adults can benefit from HDA as well. Her adult ballet classes focus on coordination and flexibility which, according to Grapes, also helps with memory loss or Alzheimer’s. “The instructor gives the combination, students have to memorize the steps, and the brain sends signals to the body to actually do the steps,” says Grapes.
Yet all her students, from Mommy and Me classes to Adult Ballet, are encouraged to absorb the life lessons taught through ballet. Grapes believes that every child should experience the dance culture. “Dance promotes body awareness, etiquette, teamwork, learning how to handle your successes and failures, and learning to remember details. They also need to keep an open mind. These are all things that I believe help create successful, employable adults,” says Grapes. “All the skills they learn here will help them become more responsible and accountable.”
These skills also help to create successful professional dancers as Grapes has two graduate students who are dancing professionally with the Kentucky Ballet Theatre and the Minnesota Ballet, respectively. Her students have also received scholarships to study at Pointe Park University and Butler University, as well as the State Ballet of Berlin in Germany, the Boston Ballet, and the American Ballet Theatre. Her students have also placed as high as third place at the Youth America Grand Prix. Nineteen of her students have qualified to go to the coveted Youth America Grand Prix New York City Finals.
Through her classes, Grapes also focuses on time management, goal-setting, hard work, and achievement. “Most people are goal-driven,” she says. “If a student sees something here and they want it, I encourage them to work hard and to play by the rules so they can achieve it.”
One of the shared goals for HDA performers is a beautiful performance of “The Nutcracker.” As in the past, “The Nutcracker” will be performed the weekend prior to Thanksgiving as a way to kick off the holiday season.
The Nutcracker performance will take place at Nazareth Academy in La Grange on November 19 and 20. There is a 7 p.m. performance on Saturday evening, November 19 and two matinee performances, one at Noon and one at 3:30 p.m., on Sunday, November 20. Tickets range in price from $20 to $32 and can be purchased Hinsdale Dance Academy’s website or at the door at the time of the performance. Purchasing tickets ahead of time is encouraged as performances sell out.
Rest assured, Grapes will be right there with you in the audience enjoying every performance. “I love to watch the shows. I enjoy watching them go through the whole process and seeing how much they love it,” says Grapes. “It’s such a magical experience.”
For more information, visit hinsdaledanceacademy.com or call 630-484-3241.