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AIDS: Dance for Life: 20 years of creative combat against HIV/AIDS
by Joe Franco

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Keith Elliott. Photo by Hal Baim

"My mission here in Chicago is just to make dance happen." Keith Elliott did not know it in 1992, when he co-created Dance for Life with Todd Kiech, but their idea would become the "largest dance performance-based AIDS fundraising event in the Midwest."

Elliot's passion for the art of dance led him to work towards what would become Dance for Life. He pitched the idea to Harriet Ross, who suggested that he "get the big guys" and involve the larger dance companies, including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Gail Kalver, then its executive director. "She made all the calls," said Elliott of Ross. The only issue on the table was the lack of a beneficiary.

"Dance for Life sounded like something really special," said Danny Kopelson about the Dance for Life concept. As the public relations go-to at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, he certainly had the wherewithal and enthusiasm to help make Dance for Life a reality. In its first year at the Organic Theatre, Dance for Life sold out all 400 seats. In the past 15 years at the Harris Theatre, Dance for Life had sold out all 1,500 available seats each year. Now in its 20th year, the organization has moved to the 4,000-seat Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University. "We had no idea that Dance for Life would be so successful," said Kopelson.

Since its beginning, Dance for Life has raised more than $4 million for local AIDS charities, including the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dance for Life Fund. "The AIDS Foundation is an umbrella funding organization," said Elliott, noting that the foundation is able to spread funds over a wider area.

The Dance for Life Fund was originally established in 1994 to benefit dancers with HIV and AIDS. The fund personally affected the lives of hundreds of dancers. It has covered basic necessities for dancers living with HIV. In some cases, the fund even provided airfare for dancers without the resources to see their families; with others, it helped cover funeral expenses for those who succumbed to the disease. "Dancers in Chicago are frequently not provided health insurance," said Kopelson.

"We wanted to make it easier for them to bear their costs, maybe pay for rent. It's tough being a dancer," added Elliott.

The event's dancers come from numerous companies across Chicago. Dance for Life features four permanent companies: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, River North Chicago Dance and The Joffrey Ballet. Dance for Life also features one other dance company; this year, Ron de Jesus Dance will join the ensemble. This is not only a "wonderful opportunity for others to see the established dance companies," said Kopelson, but also "gives the smaller companies exposure to an audience they might not normally have."

In no other venue can one see talent from five companies perform together for a common purpose.

That singular purpose is to dance, in spite of AIDS. It gives the public a unique opportunity to see dance as both performance and message. "Helpless. In one word, that's what we all felt," said Elliott about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. "We were seeing friends who were dying. Their talent? It just wasn't on stage anymore. So we wanted to honor those who have passed."

Dance for Life has stayed true to that message. It's not about sadness and loss but about joy and celebration. "This is a reminder," said Elliott, "that while we are here, we can still celebrate and raise money for those in need." Elliott said that it was "evident what it means to the dancers just by what they bring to it."

Dance for Life "has helped create a Chicago dance community," said Kopelson. "Everyone backstage, all of the people who didn't know each other, were now talking as if they were old friends," said Elliott. The dance community camaraderie at Dance for Life performances was attributed to overwhelming dancer enthusiasm to perform in the finale, originally introduced by Randy Duncan. As a reprise in its 20th year, Duncan has choreographed the finale for the second act. His colleague and friend, Harrison McEldowney, choreographed the finale for the first act. Both performances are world premieres.

Dance for Life collaborated with the others in the arts to continue the fight against AIDS. This year, Dance for Life was involved with Wheeling High School's benefit concert. "It's a mini-Dance for Life. The dance clubs from surrounding schools get together to raise funds and awareness about AIDS," said Kopelson. "This was student produced with involvement from professionals at The Joffrey Ballet and others." Emily Kaplan, a student of New Trier High School and daughter of River North Chicago Dance co-founder Julie Kaplan, organized a similar benefit in her own school. "The kids raised over $12,000 on their own. This was so touching," said Elliott.

On May 11, a group gathered to watch the world premiere of a new documentary produced by Emmy-winning HMS Media and Scott Silberstein, focused on Dance for Life. The film chronicles the 30-year impact of HIV and AIDS on Chicago's dance community with Dance for Life's 20-year response supporting HIV and AIDS education, prevention and care through the power of dance. "This was not a vanity piece. This came about after 15 years of asking from Scott Silberstein and the efforts of Patty Eylar at Chicago Ballet," said Elliott. The film "is about the strength of the dancers. This was just not about Dance for Life but about the Chicago dance community," he added. WTTW is to air the documentary Thursday, Aug. 11, at 10 p.m.

Kopelson and Elliott have strong emotions tied to Dance for Life. "This is not about a struggle for power or about ego. Dance for Life brings together amazing people to do something greater than themselves," Elliott said. "Every year that the show is on I see all those in attendance, the dancers' faces and the comments from others. It all just warms my heart."

Dance for Life's 20th performance will be Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 at the Auditorium Theater. Tickets for the performance will be available for purchase June 15. Pre-order tickets now by contacting 312-922-5812. Also see .

Keith Elliott, Danny Kopelson and Harriet Ross are all interviewed on for their work on AIDS/HIV and Dance for Life in Chicago.

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