RIVER FOREST, ILLINOIS (WLS) -- Chicago's best dancers from ages nine to 19 competed in the regional Youth America Grand Prix, known at YAGP, all hoping to earn a spot in the largest and most prestigious ballet competition in the world.
"The Youth America Grand Prix, it's just about the most accessible dance competition, while also being the most competitive," said Dylan Gutierrez, 30, a 12th-year dancer at Joffrey Ballet and YAGP alumnus.
The regional competition is organized in three age groups. Dancers compete with classical/neoclassical repertoire, contemporary routines, and ensemble performances.
17-year-old Gabe Hartman, who has studied at the Indiana Ballet Theatre and the A&A Ballet Center for Dance, competed in all three events for his age group.
Gabe and his twin sister, Lindsay, have shared a lifelong passion for ballet. But they've also both dealt with a series of health conditions - including chiari malformation and intracranial hypertension - that forced Lindsay to stop her ballet training.
"Recently I had to stop dancing because my body just could not take it anymore," Lindsay said. "But ballet for me was like an escape. I could go and tell a different story other than my health issues."
Lindsay said that she has recently discovered new ways to dance, such as a chair ballet performance with a dance movement therapist.
Dance has given Gabe the same outlet for expression.
"I'm working really hard, and hopefully in the next few years I can take that next step to becoming a professional ballet dancer," Gabe said.
YAGP is frequently a showcase for young dancers to earn recognition and jumpstart their professional careers.
Gutierrez and his fiancé, Jeraldine Mendoza, each got their starts through the competition.
Mendoza only competed once in her hometown San Francisco regional. She earned first place and was quickly recruited by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
Gutierrez participated in YAGP throughout his youth, and eventually earned a full scholarship to study ballet in London based on his performance at the national competition.
YAGP co-founder Gennady Saveliev said the purpose of the contest is not only to compare participants to each other, but also to elevate dancers to their highest level of performance.
"It's a process of creation. That's ballet. You're trying to be better - not than your friend or the person next to you - but you're trying to be better than yourself," Saveliev said.
Youth America Grand Prix attracts best young ballet dancers for Chicago regional competition