Hinsdale Dance Academy founder Jennifer Grapes was always destined to find her passion in the arts. As a little girl, she wanted to play the piano. Thinking that purchasing a piano was an expensive undertaking, her parents enrolled her in a dance class instead. She’s never looked back. She grew up in dance and gymnastics, eventually deciding to focus on dance.
“By the age of 12, I was very leggy and got too tall for gymnastics,” says Grapes. “I became completely absorbed in ballet and dance, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to have parents who supported me, and dance probably turned out to be a lot more expensive for my parents than purchasing a piano.”
Grapes would go on to study with Paula Weber, dean of the dance program at University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC), earning her bachelor of fine arts with an emphasis on dance.
“Paula was my mentor, and I credit her for helping polish me, teaching me the little details about becoming a professional dancer,” she explains. The collegiate route also afforded Grapes the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the dance industry. “I learned to respect all facets of a dance production—from the lighting designers to the conductor and the people building the set. Without them, you wouldn’t have the production. It’s a community effort.”
And it’s this appreciation for the team effort and the creative process that formed a foundation Grapes would eventually bring to her role as owner of her own dance academy. But first, she would pursue her professional career and earn a coveted full-time role as one of 24 dancers with the Milwaukee Ballet. Eventually, arthritis in her left foot signaled an end to Grapes’ career as a professional dancer. With her characteristic determination, when life gave her lemons, she decided to make lemonade.
“It was initially my husband’s idea, who encouraged me to start my own dance school in the very same location where the former HDA (which eventually closed) had operated,” says Grapes. “I always had a passion for teaching, as well, and have taught intermittently since I was 15. I took it as a sign that the original building was up for rent.”
She established a new HDA in 2012, which has been on a fast trajectory straight up since day one. The academy offers the highest quality caliber of classical ballet curriculum including classes in pointe and pas de deux, as well as contemporary, modern, lyrical, and jazz dance styles—with much more on the horizon.
Just last month, the HDA dance ensemble placed second at The Youth America Grand Prix in Indianapolis, then traveled to New York City to compete in the finals and attend a gala at Lincoln Center.
“This competition is considered the Olympics for ballet,” says Grapes. “The entire world participates, and they select only exceptional dancers and dance numbers. It’s a huge honor to be asked to attend, and we’ve been going since 2013.”
HDA also received YAGP’s prestigious 2018 Outstanding School Award. This is only one example of how HDA provides “amazing experiences” for its students, beyond what is typically offered at a dance school.
“I love bringing in teachers that I dreamed of working with when I was their age. But they didn’t come to Independence, Mo. back then,” she laughs. The Master Class Series that runs throughout the year brings such luminaries to its Westmont school every couple of months—guest artists from prestigious companies such as the American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Hagen, Boston Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, New York City Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, and Ballet Augsburg (Germany). “Nilas Martins, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and current co-director of the Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre, comes to do a master class for all the girls. If we are working on a Grand Prix, he’ll coach the girls in the dance they are working on and offer private lessons within the school.”
While it might be tempting to relax in the glow of the recent Grand Prix recognition, Grapes and her team are making significant changes at HDA to take the school to the next level—beyond dance—to become more of an arts academy. To accomplish this, HDA is expanding its space to allow for two new studios. It is also adding age-appropriate hip hop classes, an adaptive dance program for children with special needs, a preschool language program offering Spanish and Mandarin, a shopping boutique, and a Petite Dance Company for kids under 6 years of age who Grapes says “are so hungry to dance more and compete.”
While this would seem daunting to most, Grapes is taking it all in stride. She relies on her highly competent staff to help make it all happen, not to mention her underlying values that drive her passion to inspire excellence in dance, and in life.
“Dance lessons are life lessons,” explains Grapes of her philosophy, “Not everyone has to become a professional dancer, but they can become successful and employable adults through the lessons they learn here—being on time, being respectful, taking their wins and their losses. These are the tools children need these days.”
Fortunately, students can take advantage of these dance—and life—lessons year-round at HDA. Summer intensive classes will see four ballet dancers from around the world visit HDA.
“After the summer sessions wrap up, we hold our Nutcracker auditions,” say Grapes, without missing a beat. This will be the sixth year that HDA offers performances of The Nutcracker to the community. The academy has also presented three other full-length ballets— Cinderella, Giselle, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All productions have included professional dancers from around the world.
Ultimately, the students who study at HDA are a testament to the academy’s outstanding dance instruction. Several HDA students are following in Grapes’ dance steps by studying dance at UMKC. Holly Marcin, of Hinsdale, who graduated from HDA in 2013, and now from UMKC, is currently auditioning to be a professional dancer. Ansley Pierce, also from Hinsdale and a graduating senior from Hinsdale Central, will attend the same program this fall on scholarship.
“I’ve found that these past six years have been even better than the last chapter,” Grapes concludes.
We have a feeling it won’t be her last. Stay tuned.
Hinsdale Dance Academy is located at 645 Blackhawk Drive in Westmont, 630-484-3241. For a complete listing of classes and to register, visit hinsdaledanceacademy.com.