Many dancers would opt for the bright lights and big stages of Chicago over the usually smaller audiences Peoria companies attract. But Brenda Langan, who lives and teaches in Chicago, travels to Peoria on weekends to rehearse and perform as a company dancer with Illinois Ballet.
Langan grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and began taking dance lessons early. “I used to watch ballet on public television when I was little. I told my parents, after watching one day, that I was going to be a ballerina. Of course my parents’ reaction was that all little girls want to be ballerinas. So they took me to a performance and asked afterward if I was still interested in taking lessons, and I said I was. Ballet was my first and only love.”
When she was 13, Langan started going to downtown Chicago to study at the Chicago City Ballet School, the school for the now-defunct Chicago City Ballet, where Maria Tallchief was director and founder. “At 16, I started dancing professionally with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Wisconsin Ballet Theatre. I had decided to do correspondence for my high schooling, so I could dance as a professional, and was able to graduate a year early,” she said.
The following year, Langan started going to companies for full seasons instead of just small contracts. “Since then I’ve danced with Charleston Ballet Theatre; Bryant Ballet in Chicago; Ballet Eddy Toussaint; Columbia City Ballet; and Illinois Ballet, where I’m currently in my second season.”
As she was preparing to move back to Illinois, a friend in Columbia City mentioned Mary Price Boday and her location in Peoria. Langan said she hoped to dance with Boday but moved back before knowing if that was possible or not. “When I first got here I was too late to join the performance they were doing, so I arranged to dance with Illinois Ballet in the spring. Once I met Mary I had no doubt I wanted to dance with her. She’s an awesome director to work for. She physically challenges you with the choreography, but she’s also very supportive of her dancers. She has a knack for making dancers the best they can be. Being a part of Illinois Ballet is definitely worth the drive.”
Langan said she was about three years old when she decided ballet would be her career. “All through elementary and middle school—and eventually high school—it was always the plan that I was going to dance. It was never a question. Everyone—myself included—thought I would go to an arts high school, then go out and audition for major companies, and they would just scoop me up.”
Needless to say, being a professional dancer has been harder than Langan originally thought. “When I actually got out there, I found it wasn’t necessarily true that if you had talent, you would get a job. There were a lot of politics I hadn’t expected, and unfortunately, some of it was who you knew in the business. Just coming out I didn’t know anyone. I thought it would be a fairy tale, like all of the ballet books and movies; the real dance world was quite different,” she said.
In addition to the challenges in the beginning of her career—finding jobs—Langan said the continual challenge in her career is the audition process. “It’s very difficult to stand in front of someone who’s judging every tiny little detail about your body and your dancing and not get nervous knowing that’s what they’re doing. Rejection—and it happens many times in a dancer’s life—isn’t easy to take. Especially in a career where feeling good about yourself is quite a task. Of course it’s physically challenging as well.”
But she said all of the physical and emotional discomfort is worth it. “There’s nothing that can compare to the feeling when you know you did a good job—and the feeling of accomplishment you get from being able to do a dance more easily because of all of the hard work you’ve put into it. Knowing that if, even for a minute, you can personally touch someone through your movements or the emotions you’re conveying is a pretty amazing reward.”
With her feet planted in both the Chicago and Peoria arts scene, Langan said she sees definite differences between the audiences of the two cities. “Chicago, I would say, is more receptive to the arts—at least ballet. The people we have coming to the Illinois Ballet performances are great, though. They seem to really enjoy what they see. I think more people need to be made aware of the benefits of dance, and that ballet doesn’t have to mean Swan Lake or Nutcracker. It can be fun like Rock Ballet. I think too many people are stuck on the old stereotype of ballet being boring; however, the Illinois Ballet is slowly but surely attracting more people.”
Langan is no stranger to converting people to the benefits of the arts. Unlike many artistic children who grow into professional artists, Langan said her family wasn’t even remotely artistic. “We didn’t have any artists—or even art lovers—in our family before me. I came up with it on my own. In fact, I’ve given them an appreciation for the arts they hadn’t had before. They’ve always been very supportive of my choice, however.”
Audiences in Peoria may have a limited opportunity to see Langan dance with Illinois Ballet. “I’ll definitely dance this next season, but I don’t know from there. I’m almost 30 years old, and my husband and I want to start a family. I’m interested in bridal consulting as my next career, but I’ll continue to teach until motherhood or the bridal business takes over.” AA!