Lindsey George of Cary, guest artist Stephanie Cihlar of Chicago, and Megan Clement of Barrington perform during the 2013 production of Coppelia.

High-Caliber Training at Barrington Youth Dance Ensemble

For 30 years, this talented group of young people has wowed Barrington-area audiences. Discover just how dedicated these dancers are to this high-quality training ground.

Lindsey George of Cary, guest artist Stephanie Cihlar of Chicago, and Megan Clement of Barrington perform during the 2013 production of Coppelia.
Lindsey George of Cary, guest artist Stephanie Cihlar of Chicago, and Megan Clement of Barrington perform during the 2013 production of Coppelia.


Mary Brennan has lost count of the number of times she’s been approached by patrons during the intermissions of performances of the Barrington Youth Dance Ensemble (BYDE).

“They comment, ‘I bought a ticket to this, but I had no idea how great it was going to be. I am shocked,’” recalls the BYDE artistic director. “I’ve had the same reaction in the grocery store. I think they believe that, because we’re in the suburbs, it’s not going to be professional caliber. New audience members are pleasantly surprised.”

By its mission, the nonprofit organization promotes artistic integrity, involvement and awareness through exceptional dance training and performance. Drawing young people from around Barrington and the surrounding communities, the company is an extension of the Barrington Dance Academy (BDA), 758 W. Northwest Highway, in Barrington. Brennan founded the academy in 1984, and five years later, established BYDE through a grant from the local Duchossois Family Foundation. Currently, the company has 30 dancers, both girls and boys, age 11 to 18.

“The ensemble is an excellent training ground for dance students,” says Brennan. “It provides them an opportunity to perform in high-caliber productions on the same stage with professional dancers. It is the melding of students and professionals that makes our productions unique.”

The BYDE presents two major productions each year, held at the Barrington High School auditorium: The Nutcracker in December and another production in the spring. Rehearsals are held in two studios at the BDA, where most of these dancers are already training with several world-class instructors.

In addition to Brennan, the ensemble is led by an executive board of directors and advisory board; an artistic advisory board of professional dancers, choreographers and directors; and a parent auxiliary board whose main responsibility is organizing fundraising activities. This year’s fundraising events include a golf outing on June 28 and an annual gala on Oct. 18.

“We’re very grateful to our artistic production and teaching staff, our board members and volunteers,” says Brennan. “These are people who are passionate about the arts. They go above and beyond when it comes to supporting these kids and their dreams. We wouldn’t be successful without them.”

The same could be said about Brennan. Her extensive dance training includes time spent at The Royal Academy of Dance in London, the Ellis-DuBoulay School in Chicago, the National Academy of Dance in Champaign, Ill., and the University of Illinois, where she earned a theater education degree. Brennan served as drama department chair for the Champaign School District before moving to the Chicago area.

In addition, Brennan served as dance co-chair for the Barrington Area Arts Council for many years. She has developed dance curriculum for the Illinois State Board of Education and currently serves on the dance panel for the Illinois Arts Council.

“I became interested in dance as a young child,” Brennan says. “It took a lot of begging before my mom signed me up for lessons. I loved the process of going to class and performing. I fully enjoyed the challenge and respected what a privilege it is to dance. I hope to instill that attitude in my students. All children deserve that opportunity to excel at something.”

With BYDE, Brennan’s producing, directorial and choreographic credits include The Nutcracker, Under the Big Top, Coppelia, The Sleeping Beauty and Peter and the Wolf.

“So many of the ballets are Mary’s creations, and she brings them to life on stage,” says Annette Nikolich, a former board member whose daughter is currently a member of BYDE. “Without her motivation to keep dance at the forefront, the rest of us would suffer. Her talent has been a blessing to our kids and our families.”

To join the company, youths must attend an audition that is scored by outside judges, who determine in which division or level the students are placed. In addition to their training schedule, company dancers rehearse once or twice a week.

“Our goal is to give them an extraordinary life experience in addition to a superb education,” says Brennan. “We hope to give them an opportunity that is going to serve them in all aspects of life, centered on working together as a team. With all this hard work, I hope they gain humility and self-discipline while feeling sheer joy in what they do. The dancers are very close and the friendships they make during these years can last a lifetime.”

Nikolich has noticed a difference in her daughter, Juliana, who started at BDA at age 6 and enrolled in BYDE five years later. Juliana is now a sophomore at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein.

“She’s more focused and budgets her time better because of dance,” says her mom. “It’s true with anything when you make it a priority. She’s a kid who doesn’t waste time. I’m impressed with the way the BYDE dancers carry themselves with maturity.”

Juliana agrees. “Dance has definitely taught me to work harder,” she says. “You can’t walk into dance and expect to get it right the first time. You have to keep working at it. Dance has also helped me with school and other aspects of my life.”

A competitive skater until she reached fifth grade, Juliana initially turned to dance to spend more time with a neighborhood friend, who was already involved in BDA. It wasn’t long before Juliana developed a true appreciation for dance.

“I love to perform,” she says. “It’s stressful at times, but it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. I have formed such close bonds with the other girls that I didn’t have in skating. Some of these girls have become my best friends. We’ve grown up together.”

BDA and BYDE employ an illustrious ballet staff that includes Guillermo Leyva, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet, Ballet de Camaguey in Cuba, and Ballet de Monterrey in Mexico.

Also on staff are Pamela Johnson Tanis, formerly with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, and Roberta Pfeil-Begley, who spent the bulk of her performing career with the San Francisco Ballet. Modern dance and jazz classes are instructed by Chelsea DuBois and Elizabeth McGleam, who have dance degrees from Illinois State University and Butler University, respectively.

“These are people who’ve danced professionally throughout their career,” says Brennan. “It’s a melding of professional artists with ambitious students. We’re so fortunate that they are willing to work with these kids. They’re very giving people.”

The company has a strong outreach program that raises arts awareness through performances at preschools, public schools, community centers, senior citizens facilities and supporting agencies. Giving back to the community and providing dance education scholarships are important elements.

Former students keep in touch long after they’ve graduated.

“I’m always pleased to hear back from my students,” says Brennan. “Many have gone on to dance careers as performers, teachers and choreographers. Others have chosen to be doctors or school teachers, but what they all believe is that studying at the BDA and reaching high levels in dance through BYDE has made them better people.”

This year, BYDE celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special concert on June 13-14. “The concert will be a kaleidoscope of dance, from classical to contemporary,” Brennan says. “It will feature award-winning choreographers and a special number with former BYDE dancers performing on stage.”