Randy Duncan and Margaret Nelson reflect on their 25 years at Dance for Life

Chicago Dancers United (CDU) is what Dance for Life is all about. As the umbrella organization which produces the annual Dance for Life gala and performance, CDU unites Chicago dancers of all stripes to provide assistance for dance professionals experiencing health crises. It has become a unique emblem for what Chicago dance is all about as well. 

Dance For Life means many things to many different people, but for Chicago audiences, it means an extraordinary night of dance. For this dance writer, it’s the single most wonderful night of the year. And you won’t want to miss it, because each year is unique. This year’s one-night gala performance extravaganza takes place Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre.

Dance for Life (DFL) began in 1991 with a one-night stand at Chicago’s Organic Theatre as a rallying cry to raise desperately-needed funds for dancers suffering from AIDS, the brain-child of Keith Elliott, then a dancer with Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, and Todd Keich. Dance for Life soon outgrew the Organic Theatre and moved on to the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, then to the Harris Theater, and finally, to the grand stage of Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre. 

“The organization has had to grow,” says Margaret Nelson, a freelance lighting designer and stage manager who's been involved with Dance for Life since 1994. Today Nelson serves as one of the stage managers and carries the title of production stage manager for DFL, as well as lighting designer for the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and the DFL Finale. For Nelson, Dance for Life means “...anything I can do to help. (It’s) a chance for dancers to support each other. They cheer each other on backstage.” 

Over the years, Nelson has watched Dance For Life become much more sophisticated. “In the early years, tech was much simpler,” she said. Moving to the Skyline Stage gave them increased technical capability, “but it was still basic. Performances were in the daytime.” One year there was a monsoon at Navy Pier and they had to put planks across puddles so people could get into the tent where the reception was held. “There was sideways rain, boats honking, crowd noise…One year there was so much wind, we had to stand on the curtain!” But the outdoor public venue at Navy Pier “gave more non-dance people an opportunity to see dance.” 

Nelson emphasizes the affordable ticket prices that continue to draw large audiences of all ages from all corners of the city. A highlight for her has been designing the lights for choreographer Randy Duncan’s finale. “Dealing with Randy has been wonderful!” she says. “Buy tickets!”

Randy Duncan has been choreographing the finale of Dance for Life for the past 25 years. This year, he has combined an eclectic mix of 19 dancers from five different Chicago dance companies along with a cross-section of independent dancers. 

Each year, Duncan has built the finale as a celebration of the collaborative spirit of Dance For Life, uniting diverse virtuoso talents. This year, Duncan has created a brand new piece to an original score for percussion, flute, guitar, instrumentals, and voice by composer Andy Mitran. He characterizes the musical style as “jazzy-pop,” fun and lively. “I wanted a party atmosphere. It’s pure ensemble work,” he said in a recent interview with See Chicago Dance. “No real solos or duets. It’s fun and fast!”

Especially fun for Duncan this year is the challenge of capitalizing on the range of different backgrounds the dancers bring to the work, which includes Evan Boursma from the Joffrey Ballet, four dancers from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, six from Giordano Dance Chicago, two from Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, one from Winifred Haun and Dancers, plus a smattering of independents. “All the dancers are absolutely gorgeous!” he said. In rehearsal, Duncan has thrown the dancers “jazzy stuff,” mixing African-inspired quick contraction/releases with balletic tours, parallel brisées, off-center pirouettes and lots of tricks, encouraging them to “let loose. They don’t often get to move like this.” 

"The dancers have been wonderful to work with,” he said. “Their energy and commitment to do their absolute best warms my heart. And they applaud each other like kids on a playground.” The eight-minute piece, “Release,” is the culmination of the whole event. The dancers “are doing it for the cause on their own dime,” coming to work with Randy at night for three hours, after six hours during the day with their respective companies.

Both Duncan and Nelson knew too many people with HIV when it was a death sentence. Thanks to advances in treatment, that is no longer necessarily the case. In addition to its ongoing funding of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, the Dancers’ Fund, an emergency grant program operated by CDU, now supports dancers and dance industry professionals facing any health crisis. “The organization…has built more formal associations to increase accessibility to funds, and knowledge of it,” Nelson said. "Dancers have taken a more active role in getting the word out.”

“I remember when the first dancer passed away, who was in Melissa Thodos’s company,” Duncan recalls. “How many didn’t have insurance or money to pay for a final visit from their families. The fact that we pulled together an organization that could help them—and now move onto other illnesses to help folks in the community—this is the way we give back, the only way we know how.”

Anchoring each year’s concert, three partner companies—Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street and the Joffrey Ballet—join forces with additional professional, Chicago-based companies selected through an application process. Rotating a mixed bill each year and representing a variety of dance genres and choreographic styles assures an opportunity for a broad range of both large and smaller companies to participate. This year, in addition to the three partner companies, Dance For Life will feature the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Stone Soup Rhythms, Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, Chicago Dance Crash, a piece by Robyn Mineko Williams and Duncan’s finale.


Dance for Life takes place at 6:00 p.m. Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets start at $15, available by clicking the event page below.