Giordano’s Diamond Anniversary sparkles with full circle moments

Many Asian cultures celebrate turning 60 as a full life, a new life, or a return to the year of birth. In America, it symbolizes seniority. All are true for Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) as the company wraps up its milestone 60th anniversary season with two performances of “Celebrate Giordano!” this weekend at the Harris Theater. It also marks the final performances of two powerhouse GDC female dancers Ashley Downs and Katie Rafferty. 
As America’s original jazz dance company, GDC has the longevity, history, and yes, seniority that garners respect from every corner of the global dance world. But it is durability and sustainability that pushes them forward into the future with new life even as they reflect on the past and honor the present.
“Magical” is a word that comes up again and again in conversation with Nan Giordano as she prepares for her namesake company’s upcoming shows. “The journey has been robust. Being reborn, reinvented, reimagined,” said Giordano. “It’s a journey of past, present, and future direction. The emotions are raw, but it’s been magical.” Video interludes produced in house will sit between pieces instead of traditional bows with themes of the “magic” of 60, community, possibility, and of course, dancers. Each of the choreographic works marks a moment of change or momentum in the company’s history. “Everything has a special meaning,” Giordano said. 
For instance, early in the show, founder Gus Giordano’s voice is heard saying, “I don’t know what will happen when I’m gone,” as dancers take the stage in a refreshed version of his popular “Sing, Sing, Sing” originally choreographed in 1983. As the performance closes, all 16 GDC dancers join the Bournés Family Singers for Randy Duncan’s rousing gospel number “Can’t Take This Away,” which was performed at Gus’s funeral. 
For self-proclaimed “jazz baby” Ashley Downs, who is retiring after 11 seasons with GDC, “Can’t Take This Away” also has special meaning. “As a new dancer in the second company (GII), Duncan’s piece was the first thing she performed. Now, it will also be her last. “I came in on the 50th and I’m heading out on the 60th. It’s been one monumental year after the next. This will be a nice full circle moment to end the show.” 
Fellow dancer Katie Rafferty holds another piece in the show close to her heart. Ron De Jesus’ 2003 “Prey” is her “favorite piece of all time,” one she requested for her final show after 13 seasons. “I was really hoping I could do it one more time,” said Rafferty. “My first year as a GII, I saw the company do it and I’d never seen anything like it. This is my third time. I just wanted one more time to really embrace it.”  
Downs and Rafferty are best friends, so it comes as no surprise they are embarking on new adventures together. Both decided to leave GDC at the same time, both got married last year, and both hope to start families soon. “I have mixed emotions all the time,” said Rafferty. “I could keep going. My heart is still in it, but I want to leave feeling good and happy and proud of what I’ve done.” Downs agrees, adding, “It’s nice to be going through this transition with Katie…someone I’m so close with. It seems right. I’m ready for a new journey.” Giordano admits their leaving is bittersweet. “When you foster two young artists and they have magical careers…these are my girls,” she said. “They are going out on top in the most magnificent way. In every way, they embrace the Giordano way.”
If Gus represents the past and dancers leaving are the present, what is the future? The answer is celebrating community by asking Kia Smith, executive artistic director of South Chicago Dance Theatre (SCDT) and current “It” girl on the Chicago dance scene to choreograph a world premiere as a gift to honor one of the city’s favorite and longtime teachers, Homer Bryant. “Luminescence.” is a 14-minute piece that pairs GDC, GII, and nine SCDT dancers (25 total!) for the largest collaboration in GDC history. “I had this idea of joining forces. We’ve never done this type of thing before, so why not this year?” Giordano said. “It shows forward motion and a collaborative spirit.”
Smith founded SCDT in 2017 and gained high-profile status when they were chosen to participate in Dance For Life in 2021. That was also when her relationship with Nan Giordano began. “She called my phone one day out of the blue just to say congratulations and welcome to the show,” Smith said. “I thought that was so kind.” As time progressed, they continued talking and when Giordano asked her to create a piece on the company, Smith jumped at the chance. “It was surprising and cool. I loved the idea.”
The process of making “Luminescence.” was new for all involved. Smith was used to creating in “a tunnel” so she workshopped phrases with some of her dancers who then taught them to the GDC dancers. “It really helped to have assistance with so many people on stage.” Using popular music by U2 and Coldplay, Smith was again out of her comfort zone. The GDC dancers are known for their fierce, energetic jazz technique, but Smith’s style is more contemporary which posed another, yet welcome, challenge. “It was interesting working with a different company,” Rafferty said. “Kia likes full spine and head engagement which is different for me. It’s been cool to play with that and try to put that on my body.” Downs enjoyed learning to partner with new dancers. “You get used to your people,” she said. “It’s been fun to explore.”
One thing Downs, Rafferty, and Smith have in common is their love and admiration of Nan Giordano. As a mentor to all three, she has guided them through important times in their lives, supporting them as she cheers them on. “It’s very powerful having a female artistic director, someone who will push you to be the strongest version of yourself but will also nurture you as a dancer and as a person,” said Downs. “Nan has impacted me…living each day to the fullest, leading with energy, power, and positivity. It all stems from her.” Rafferty credits Giordano for building a home for her dance career. “She knows when to push you but is also nurturing,” she said. “We built a relationship on trust. I think that’s why I was able to have such a long career with just one company.”
Smith is thankful for Giordano’s support and enjoyed what she calls “a true collaboration.” “It’s part of my mission to bring people together. Nan gets that,” she said. “With this being such a historical moment in dance in Chicago and for Giordano, that decades from now it will still mean a lot to me to be part of this.”
As Women’s History Month ends, it is fitting that these women who embody the past, present, and future of GDC are celebrated. “A lot of change has happened, and a lot of change is coming,” Giordano said. “In every aspect we are stronger. I’m invigorated. I’m going to take this weekend and celebrate life, love, and connection. My father is going to be radiating!” 
“Celebrate Giordano” runs March 31 – April 1 at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph St. Tickets are $25-$90 and can be purchased at, or by calling 312-334-2400.