“I know she’s only 18 months old, but I’m certain she’s going to be a dancer!”
Instead of a gushing, new-to-dance parent, the speaker was Emily Weber, the Point Park University-trained dancer and owner of Your Performing Arts Center (YPAC) in Yorkville, Illinois. Years ago, on a family vacation in Florida, she marveled at how her niece, Natalie Heldmann, expressed such joy as she danced about. Natalie’s parents responded politely—“Oh well, yes, she loves to dance”—but Emily insisted: “Oh no—this is what she will do for her life! You need to prepare for this.”
Flash forward to this spring. Natalie, now 14, was excitedly preparing to attend London’s Royal Ballet spring intensive and had already been accepted to The HARID Conservatory for summer 2022. The very best kind of bunhead, Natalie trains hard because ballet is so much fun she doesn’t want to stop. She adores New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck, takes freshman-level math and language (she’s in the 8th grade), participates in student government, is learning to choreograph, raises money for a nature conservatory, and has a 100 percent acceptance rate to top-level pre-professional ballet programs.
Yet even with all that, what impresses Emily the most about her niece is Natalie’s almost preternatural good mood. “Her attitude is amazing all the time. She’s 100 percent ‘there,’ not thinking of other things that are going on. She’s present and ready to work—we use that phrase a lot lately, because I’m just inspired by her strong mindset,” she says.
Natalie, in turn, is inspired by her aunt’s energy. “It’s interesting how she can get so much done; she’s so driven it drives me to get work done. She also works really hard to create a kind environment” at YPAC, she says, where students are encouraged to celebrate each other’s achievements.
In many ways, YPAC and Natalie grew up together. Nine years ago, as Emily prepped for her studio’s opening, 5-year-old Natalie was by her side, applying glue on the new floors with a 2-inch sponge. “She literally helped me build the floors she dances on,” Emily says.
And while Emily was designing her studio’s programming around a strong ballet base, she thought often about how to best train, support, encourage, and protect Natalie and other serious dancers.
“At a very young age we saw this in her and we were able to create our graded technique program for students like Natalie,” Emily says. “It was important for us to create that sense of love and sustainability so that Natalie wouldn’t burn out—she could be a kid and also train.”
A staff of former professional Joffrey Ballet dancers keep YPAC standards high, yet the schedule makes time for academics, family, friends, and other activities. Unlike many of her peers at Youth America Grand Prix or pre-professional summer intensives, Natalie dances three (rather than five) days a week and attends public school.
Through the years no matter what Emily needed, Natalie was there—greeting audiences as the Sugar Plum Fairy, marching in parades, and lining up little dancers backstage at performances. She shows gratitude to her teachers, thanks the front desk workers, and sets an example for others with her work ethic and consistency (always on time, always in full dress code).
Yet family relationships within a studio environment can be tricky, and Emily has been careful to stress to her niece that her accomplishments are her own. “When she told me she got into HARID, I told her, ‘This is not because your aunt owns [a dance studio]’,” Emily says. It was because of Natalie’s own hard work. “The ‘I want to do it’ has to come from within.”
In fact, Natalie wasn’t completely sold on ballet until she attended a School of American Ballet intensive at age 13. The professional atmosphere—where all the dancers were laser-focused and no correction was too small—stirred something in her creative soul. “I got to dance so much. The teacher gave me so much valuable information. I could take it and improve so much as a dancer,” she says.
Now she’s looking to challenge herself, and is hopeful that this summer’s HARID intensive might lead to an invitation to the year-round program, and someday to a professional ballet company. “When I’m dancing I’m at my happiest,” Natalie says. “I can convey a message and I don’t have to say anything. I’m grateful for my body—I can move and I can dance and I can tell a story. Dance is my passion.”