After 30 years, Chicago continues to dance for life

In 1992, a group of Chicago dancers gave a concert to raise money for HIV/AIDS. Their friends were dying; a disappointing public health response to the AIDS crisis has brought dancers together to try and do something about it. And they did what they knew how to do best: they danced for their lives.

This one-night-only fundraiser—originally intended as a one-off—sold out the Organic Theater. And every year since, Dance for Life has sold out and raised millions of dollars. Every year, that is, just one: 2020. Chicago Dancers United, the nonprofit that now produces Dance for Life, released stock footage from previous fundraisers online this summer- there and commissioned a piece which was filmed and released digitally. Fundraising returned in person last summer with an outdoor concert at Millennium Park – free for the first time in DFL history.

But Dance for Life’s main purpose is to raise funds, and the event returns with a bang on August 13, back to its longtime home at the Auditorium Theatre. Mainstays Giordano Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet are featured. Also returning: Chicago Dance Crash, Trinity Irish Dance Company and Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theatre. Najwa Dance Corps debuts in Dance for Life. And Deeply Rooted Dance Theater returns to the DFL stage after a 14-year absence.

Chicago Dancers United Chairman of the Board, Michael Anderson, was a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet when the company moved to Chicago in 1995. That same summer, he attended a rehearsal of Dance for Life and looked for ways to that the Joffrey gets involved. Joffrey Ballet co-founder and company namesake Robert Joffrey died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988.

Then in 1996, Joffrey Ballet joined the list of Dance for Life companies. Anderson remembers performing then-artistic director Gerald Arpino’s work, “Round of Angels.”

“It was amazing,” he said, “and I danced in Dance for Life every year for the next 10 years while I was in the company.”

Upon retirement, Anderson began volunteering for the event and gradually ramped up his involvement, becoming chairman of the board in 2021.

The Dance for Life fundraiser maintains a strong connection to its primary cause: bringing dancers together to care for each other. But the nature of the AIDS crisis has changed. Advocacy efforts have raised awareness and reduced the stigma surrounding the disease. Decades of research and advances in treatment mean that an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was.

In 2015, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago reduced its participation in Dance for Life. This prompted the formation of Chicago Dancers United, and the primary focus shifted to fundraising for The Dancers’ Fund, an emergency micro-grant pool run by CDU that is available to anyone in the Chicago dance community with a health need.

The Dancers Fund began to address health needs beyond HIV/AIDS, paying medical bills and helping to address housing insecurity and loss of income for dancers struggling with needs critical health issues, including cancer.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated efforts to further expand eligibility criteria, but that did not happen immediately. Anderson said the scope of what the CDU could do during the early stages of the pandemic was limited by the size of the Dancers’ Fund.

“There has never been a hesitation in supporting dancers with medical needs,” he said. “When COVID hit it was so unfamiliar, and we were getting requests from dancers to pay their salaries and cover their accommodation. The scope of what we were getting from the community around what they needed during COVID was just beyond our reach.

The Dancers Fund would have needed millions of dollars to cover each request for assistance. Behind the scenes, Chicago Dancers United began talking about what they could do, which sparked a shift from intensive care and emergency grants to thinking more holistically about health and wellness.

“It’s the evolution of Dance for Life,” Anderson said. “At first it was to help HIV/AIDS. Then it was critical need and critical care. As we have grown to where we are today, we want to help our dance community stay healthy. It really evolved from COVID.

In addition to $5,000 critical care grants (up from $4,500 pre-pandemic), Chicago Dancers United is now accepting applications for up to $1,000 to meet mental health and general wellness needs.

It’s no wonder Dance for Life is also Chicago’s biggest and best dance party of the year, bringing our brightest stars together for a good time.

The tireless women of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater will perform Gary Abbott’s exquisite work ‘Parallel Lives’. Giordano Dance Chicago in Ray Mercer’s “Shirt Off My Back” is equally exciting. Chicago Dance Crash’s infectious blend of hip-hop and contemporary dance is on full display with a snippet from their new narrative work, “Boomsday.” And Trinity Irish Dance Company’s “American Traffic” is a heart-pounding fusion of tap dancing and Irish jigging. In keeping with tradition, Randy Duncan will choreograph a soul-affirming finale by joining dancers from all lines of the company.

As Chicago’s year of dance draws to a close, Dance for Life feels like the perfect celebration of this city’s unique scene.

“I think it’s like no other dance community in the country,” Anderson said. “Dance for Life is one of those key events that brings us all together. This is what drives me and motivates me. »

Dance for Life is Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.; tickets cost between $25 and $500 at (312) 341-2300 and

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

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