Oak Park and River Forest are considered treasure troves of youthful talent for the local dance scene.
“It’s because of the Academy of Movement and Music,” said Carla Graham-White, children’s ballet master of the Joffrey Ballet, based in Chicago. “The students are well-prepared and top contributors.”
Graham-White is in charge of children’s auditions for much coveted roles in the Joffrey’s “Nutcracker.” It’s a role she has filled for 13 seasons.
“I look for dancers who are not only technically excellent but also exhibit a love of dancing,” she said, noting that 60 percent of those cast will return year after year in ascending roles. “There is a progression and dancers look forward to moving up to roles as they mature.”
This year is special for Graham White, a River Forest resident. “My grandson, Ian, is performing,” she said. Ian’s father, her son, “chose to become an artist rather than a dancer,” so she finds it very meaningful to have her grandson follow in her footsteps.
Male dancers are not as common as female.
One student in particular enjoyed his five minutes of fame before he was even cast in the production, which began Dec. 18 and continues past the New Year. Several TV reporters were on hand during the auditions and captured the spritely, red-haired, freckle-faced boy.
Finn Elsmo, a student at Oak Park’s Irving Elementary, specifically told his mother he wasn’t sure if he wanted anyone to know he was auditioning for the ballet. The avid Strikers soccer player began dancing just this year. “He was identified as having some areas needing improvement in school, and dance was recommended as a form of therapy,” said his mother, Melissa Elsmo. “So not only do I have the Academy to thank for his interest in dance, but his handwriting has also greatly improved.”
Elsmo signed Finn up at the Academy, where his older sister Emma is a dancer. “Finn is in an all-boys class, which he loves,” his mother says.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Finn’s audition was on several news stations that night. “Many people said they saw me on TV when I went to school,” said Finn, “but it wasn’t really a big deal.”
“He is cast as the Arabian doll,” his mother said. “A red-haired boy named Finn Elsmo, doesn’t that just say Arabian?” she quipped. His red hair is covered by a turban, but there’s an upside. “He is one of the shortest dancers, so the turban gives him some extra height.”
“I like dancing but I like soccer better,” said Finn. “But I would consider being a dancer when I grow up.” He thinks dancing is fun and is taking his fame in stride.
“Finn is easy-going,” said his mother. “He just goes with the wind.”
Tatiana Castaneda, 10, a fifth-grader at Lincoln Elementary in Oak Park, is performing as a Snow Tree angel this year. “She has been a dancer at the Academy since she was three years old,” says her mother, Marilee. She is also a junior member of the MOMENTA performance troupe there.
Tatiana and her family have seen the Joffrey “Nutcracker” for many years, but paid more attention to the music than the dancing. Dad, Ricardo Castaneda, a professional musician, plays the oboe in the production.
“This year, he is even attending the performances when he isn’t playing-to watch Tatiana,” said Castaneda.
Tatiana said she feels more secure knowing her dad is in the orchestra pit. “I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina,” she said. “Ballerinas are beautiful, but dance is very hard work.” She is looking forward to going en pointe in February. “We have been working hard to develop strength,” she said.
Emily Wilkes, 11, is making her Nutcracker debut this year as a soldier. “I love to dance,” she said. “It’s fun and I feel like I’m flying.”
Stephanie Clemens, director of the Academy of Movement and Music, said, “As the teacher of many of the dancers  who are performing, the excitement of the dancers is very visible in class-not just in giggles and doing their steps, but very present in the increased hard work I see at the barre.”
Academy teacher Valery Dolgallo, the ballet master, is Drosselmeyer in the Salt Creek Ballet “Nutcracker,” and instructor Emily West Moser is the Snow Queen in a Nutcracker performance in Schaumburg.
Minus the pomp and circumstance
Ballet Legere, which has several locations in the Chicago area, including River Forest, just completed their annual performance of “The Nutcracker.” Unlike the Joffrey, which is at Chicago’s Auditorium, their performances were held at the historic Chodl Auditorium at Morton High School on Austin in Cicero.
With an audience of family members, many under the age of 10, and hot dogs roasting and popcorn popping in the entryway, as well as home-baked cookies, for concessions, the atmosphere is more homespun. Rowdy cheers erupt when certain performers take the stage, especially the tumblers and gymnasts from Maywood Fine Arts, Stairway To The Stars and Mr. Ernie’s Flip Flop and Fly.
“It’s a wonderful chance for the kids to perform with top talent,” said a representative from the ballet. “The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier are imported from the New York Ballet.”