Dance For Life has been one of the highest-praised and most looked-forward-to day of dance in Chicago since 1992, when founding Directors Keith Elliott and Todd Kiech sought a meaningful way to raise funds for medical care and life assistance for dancers suffering from HIV/AIDS.
The performance this Saturday, Aug. 13, at 6pm at the Auditorium Theatre, features a who’s-who of Chicago dance companies, including the Joffrey Ballet, Giordano Dance Chicago, Chicago Dance Crash, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, NAJWA Dance Corps, and Trinity Irish Dance Company. The performance has traditionally culminated with a world premiere finale by acclaimed choreographer Randy Duncan. Proceeds from the performance go to The Dancers’ Fund, a critical care grant for Chicago dancers and related dance theatre professionals in need of emergency assistance for any medical conditions that limit their ability to work, as well as assistance for basic life needs.
Every year, the audience anticipates a new work by choreographer Randy Duncan to end the performance. “I always go in with a plan,” said Duncan in a recent phone interview with See Chicago Dance, “I’ve been choreographing the finale [of Dance For Life] since 1994, and immediately when this year’s performance is over I’m thinking of the next year’s already.” Duncan is teaming up with longtime collaborator, composer Andy Mitran, who has inspired him to create a work that is “designed to lift the spirits and warm some hearts.” Without revealing too much, Duncan gives us a clue as to what we are to expect, “Sometimes it’s a song that inspires me, sometimes it’s not. This time, I had gone to a choral concert, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never started with a choral thing’. The finale is no slapdash affair, and Duncan is not fooling around with the talent who perform his work. “I have to have the best of the dancers,” said Duncan. “It’s not like I can go grab anyone off the street. You are really committing to some time, and we have to do it so fast and make sure that it is clean, like they all look like they come from one company, and not several.” Audiences expecting a high standard of dancing in the finale may be interested to learn that Duncan shares their sentiment. “Who can match the style? There is a certain look and a certain thing that must be accomplished, and I don’t have the time to teach and work with dancers to get my style; these dancers that I know can really work it.”
Behind the scenes, there are people involved with the event who are just as passionate as the dancers taking center stage, like Julie Burman Kaplan, Vice President of Chicago Dancers United, the nonprofit that manages The Dancers’ Fund. “I remember the first time I went to Dance For Life,” said Kaplan in an interview. “I had danced for Hubbard Street for years, and after I retired from Hubbard Street I started River North Dance Company. I’ve done many different things… and the first time I went to Dance For Life I remember thinking ‘This is the most passionate, beautiful, extraordinary event I’ve ever seen in terms of dance, and it is unique to Chicago — there’s not another city in the country that does this.’”
The origin of Chicago Dancers United stems from the AIDS/HIV crisis in the United States from 1980 to the early 1990s, and from the subsequent advances in treatment for the virus. “Once the HIV/Aids crisis was no longer a death sentence,” said Kaplan, “we realized that the health needs of the Chicago dance community were much greater.” Chicago Dancers United and The Dancers’ Fund currently support organizations like the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and 24 other AIDS prevention, treatment, and advocacy organizations in Chicago, and also focuses on putting the general health and wellness of Chicago dancers and those working in the dance industry — lighting designers, costume designers, production people, administrators — back into their own hands. “So many people in the dance community don’t have health insurance, or have limited health insurance, and this just takes a lot of stress away from the applicants, to know that they can work on getting the care they need… I believe that we are helping and changing a lot of lives in our community.”
Ted Grady, co-chair of Dance for Life 2022, is many things — co-owner of Chicago’s J&L Catering, inductee into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame — but one thing he is not is a dancer. “I don’t have any dance genes in my body at all,” said Grady. While many of the people involved in DFL work in the dance industry, Grady brings a different and valuable perspective to the table, that of the spectator. “For me, it’s just important to appreciate and honor all the incredible performers that we have. Chicago is at the forefront of dance in the country and, just like our sports, a dancer is as much of an athlete as a football or baseball player; but it is more important to support the dancers because often times dancers sacrifice so much — like health insurance — to stay with their passion.” While other’s joke about the stereotype of the “starving artist,” Grady takes the tribulations of dancers seriously, saying that “For us to be able to support them with critical care needs, financial needs, health and wellness needs is really important because otherwise they can’t continue.”
Recent public health concerns support the necessity for a united and healthy dance community. “This event is a reminder of how full circle life is,” said Kaplan, “starting with HIV/AIDS and today with COVID and Monkeypox… we all see how precarious life is and we need to stand up and help one another and show up with love and compassion, and that’s what Dance For Life does.”
What is amazing about Dance For Life is that it really is helping people through the physical act of dancing. One can appreciate that they can see all of this talent under one roof, and then top that off with the fact that all of these dance companies are volunteering their time for a cause. Such unification and passion in our dance community makes it a very unique, spectacular event.