“It’s a joyous celebration of dancers!” says Chicago Dancers United board member, Lynne Belsky, about the organization’s annual performance gala, “Dance For Life.”
Belsky, an MD and former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, is co-founder and ballet teacher at CBG institute for Dance and Health, and owner of Living Well Medical Associates, LLC.
“Dancers are giving of themselves to help one another,” she said of “Dance for Life” and the The Dancers’ Fund, which provides funds to professionals in the dance industry. “It is a gift of health and life.” This year, Belsky is Chair of the Fund Committee, which has established an alliance with Howard Brown Health, whose 11 clinics offer 40-50% discount on medical fees.
The Dancers’ Fund provides up to $1,000 for general health and wellness and up to $5,000 for critical needs, payed directly to providers. “I just feel great when I’m there! I’m so happy!” Belsky said of “Dance for Life.”
CDU Executive Director Nathaniel Ekman officially took the helm of the organization in late January, but he has been involved in decision making since October, 2022, necessitated because of his part in administrative planning for this year’s 32nd season of “Dance For Life.”
“Art is essential to the human condition,” he said. “If dancers are injured (or ill), they cannot make art.” Ekman came to CDU from his position as Executive Director of the local chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, (NAMI), overseeing 17 communities in the greater Chicagoland area, and providing support for individuals who otherwise cannot afford access to mental health care. “It levels the playing field,” he said of his work for NAMI. When the Executive Director position of CDU became available, he was asked to apply. With his background in mental health, Ekman was well-suited to the needs of dancers, whose physical health problems often coincide with mental health issues as well.
Admittedly not an authority on dance, Ekman confessed, “I’ve learned about the health of the dancers (and) to understand the mental and physical stress on the body….Dancers hold themselves to very high standards.” As Executive Director, his main objectives are 1) growing revenue for the Dancers’ Fund: “getting more money to give away;” and 2) Increasing the demand for the funds; i.e. reaching a greater number of those in need. One of the most gratifying aspects of his job is
“bringing the non-dance community together to learn about the many different dance genres” that represent the diverse cultural population of Chicago. He expresses enthusiasm for this year’s gala “Dance For Life” performance, which is “bigger and better” than ever. “Coming to ‘Dance For Life’ is not just about the event or about supporting a non-profit organization. It’s about supporting the art form of dance by insuring that all dance industry professionals may have increasing access to healthcare.”
This year, he says, “Dance for Life” is on target to reach its goal of $325,000 profit.
“I’m so excited that we’re back!” says Hubbard Street’s Artistic Director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell. Hubbard Street missed “Dance for Life’s” 2022 return to the stage of the Auditorium Theatre. “We weren’t able last year. It felt weird not to participate,” she said, because of the company’s touring commitment at Jacob’s Pillow. “It’s going to feel brand new.”
This year Hubbard Street launches its 46th season at “Dance for Life” with a full roster of all 14 dancers, six of whom are new to the company this season. They will perform excerpts from Azure Barton’s “Busk,” (2019). This performance will “celebrate the fact that Azure Barton is Hubbard Street’s artist-in-residence for the next three years. As the newly appointed company director just before the pandemic, this season will be Linda-Denise’s first time bringing Hubbard Street indoors. The company’s previous participation in “Dance for Life” was an outdoor performance at the Pritzker Pavillion.
Linda-Denise is especially excited about Randy Duncan’s finale, which includes five Hubbard Street dancers, one of whom also dances with BOOM CRACK! Dance Company, one of the ten companies performing at “Dance For Life.” One of Linda-Denise’s favorite things about “Dance For Life” is the Randy Duncan’s finale, bringing representatives from all the different companies plus several freelance artists to perform in one piece together
Production Stage Manager and lighting designer Margaret Nelson was in the middle of writing cue sheets for Saturday night’s performance when I called her. The complexity of coördinating the running of the entire evening is daunting, with a record number of ten companies participating this year. One of Nelson’s favorite things about “Dance For Life” is “being backstage with the dancers watching each other,” enjoying the camaraderie of 20 or 30 dancers cheering each other on.
Now in her 30th year with “Dance For Life,” Nelson laughs, “I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long, raising money and surviving!” As production stage manager, she is in charge of the entire evening. Some of the companies bring their own stage managers and lighting designers, while she personally will be principle stage manager for Tap Allstars, Randy Duncan’s finale, and “Joey’s piece” (independent artist Joseph Masserelli). In addition she will design lighting for “six or seven other companies.”
She cites the challenge and excitement of Randy Duncan’s finale, with its big changes in mood, and shifts from expansive group movement to smaller ensemble and solo segments. Extra headsets allow for constant communication between the front of the house and the many backstage areas and personnel, the changing of lighting and gels, instrument re-focus, sound engineering, stage hands, and last but not least, the dancers.
“I like to bring energy and creativity to each company, to treat each individually,” she said of her lighting design work. “Do we want to see faces in a more presentational piece, or emphasize the life of the body with light in the more lyrical pieces (where) the lighting is about whole form, the bare arm or bare leg. That’s the best about what I do,” she said, “making them look like fully-rounded human beings.”
“Dance For Life” is the epitome of the Chicago dance community,” says Nan Giordano, Artistic Director of Giordano Dance Chicago. “How fitting to bring our collaborative work with South Chicago Dance Theatre, “Luminescence,” to ‘Dance For Life.’” The piece evokes a sense of “the continual light that shines through when the light is lost.” It represents community and unity and a joyous spirit, Giordano says, which is why she chose it for “Dance For Life.” Now in her 39th year as Artistic Director of GDC, one of the three long-time annual anchor companies of the gala (along with Hubbard Street and Joffrey), she is more charged than ever with enthusiasm for the growing vibrancy and future of Chicago Dance.
“Dance For Life” is the brainchild of Keith Elliott, former dancer with Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, and Harriet Ross, who was the company’s artistic director. Joseph Holmes’ tragic death from AIDS spurred Elliott to organize a grass-roots effort in the dance community, enlisting fellow dancers, choreographers, and dance companies to donate their time and talent for a one-time benefit performance that would raise funds to help professionals in the dance industry who were stricken with the disease. It was Ross who encouraged him to make “Dance For Life” an annual event. Ross, along with Gail Kalver, then Executive Director of Hubbard Street, have been integral to the success of “Dance For Life” since its inception. In 1991, Elliott teamed up with co-founder Todd Keich to incorporate “Dance For Life” as a not-for-profit corporation. The first “Dance For Life” took place in 1992 at the Organic Theatre, which it soon outgrew, moving to Navy Pier, and expanding to fill The Auditorium Theatre.
Record advance ticket sales this year are testimony to the widespread support this event has earned. If you love dance, It’s THE go-to dance event of the year, bar none. If you’re new to dance but want to see some extraordinary entertainment and uniquely Chicago community-building in action, don’t miss “Dance For Life!”
Festivities for “Dance For Life” begin at 6 PM, Saturday, August 19th, at the Auditorium Theatre, North Congress Parkway. For Information and tickets, go to SeeChicagoDance.com.