Twenty-five years ago, dancers Keith Elliott and Todd Keich put on a sold-out dance concert raising money to do something about the AIDS epidemic, which, in 1992, was heavily impacting Chicago's dance community.
The formula was simple and effective: Put great dance onstage, and donate the revenue to HIV/AIDS research and advocacy organizations. Since its humble beginnings, Dance for Life ( DFL ) has become a staple in the Chicago dance calendar, to date raising more than $5.5 million for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and 24 additional HIV/AIDS service organizations ( included among the list of beneficiaries is always an emergency aid program for Chicago's dancers called The Dancers' Fund ). Nearly 35 companies have graced DFL's stage, volunteering their time; this year, festival stalwarts Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet are joined by Visceral Dance Chicago and Chicago Dance Crash for DFL's 25th iteration.
In 2011, Elliott asked Anthony Guerrero, who came up in the theater and dance worlds, to come on board as an associate producer. Guerrero told Windy City Times, "The most exciting and wonderful thing about it is [that] the dance community is close, and very welcoming." The heart and sense of community among Chicago's dancers is never more clear than at DFL, which highlights and brings together our best and brightest stars. "That one time of year, they can always get together," said Guerrero. "During the season, their lives are busy and they don't get to work together as much as they would like."
Shorty after Guerrero was brought in part time to assist with DFL's 20th anniversary, Elliott moved to Arizona and discussions about the shift from a one-night gala event to a nonprofit organization began. "We knew that [the 25th anniversary] was going to be upon us. The vital reason for the formation of a nonprofit was The Dancers' Fund. We started developing a new marketing strategy," Guerrero said.
Part of the strategy included acknowledging the changing nature of HIV/AIDS treatment and the destigmatization of and awareness toward the disease. "When Keith started [DFL] 25 years ago, his friends were dying at an alarming rate," said Guerrero. "Now, there is much more awareness. It wasn't talked about 25 years ago, but what hasn't changed is the dance community and the idea of taking care of each other. That's why Keith started it, and that's why the dancers give their time. Any time, anyone can be effected by illness. It's important to do this work."
While The Dancers' Fund was created as a way for DFL to give emergency aid to dancers with HIV/AIDS, its mission is much broader. Any and all members of the professional dance communityfrom dancers to stagehands to class accompanistsare eligible to receive unrestricted financial assistance when faced with a critical health crisis. When Hubbard Street dancer David Schultz was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, for example, he used money from The Dancers' Fund, which DFL raised, to meet the deductible for surgery and follow-up appointments. An ongoing goal of DFL and the newly formed nonprofit Chicago Dancers United is to get the word out about The Dancers' Fund to ensure that the dance community has the resources it needs to thrive.
Guerrero was named executive director of Chicago Dancers United, and the work of building a nonprofit organization from the seasonal, one-night-only format is ongoing. "We have to remember where we came from, how we got here, and those that will help us move forward," said Guerrero.
Saturday, Aug. 20, however, is all about Dance for Life and celebrating the work that has been done to improve the lives of those with HIV/AIDS, commemorating those who have lost their courageous battles, and rejoicing in the ability of the dance community to weather storms together. Plus, guests get to see some phenomenal dancing, including two world premieres by Randy Duncan and Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer. For the first time, Chicago Dancers United will honor the commitments of individuals and organizations with the Dance for Life Impact Award, whose first recipients are Fred Eychaner and The Alphawood Foundation, Barbara Kipper and HMS Media's Scott Silberstein and Matt Hoffman.
Dance for Life begins Saturday, Aug. 20, at 5 p.m. with a gala reception at the Hilton Chicago's grand ballroom, 720 S. Michigan Ave. Guests then process to the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., for a concert at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for both the gala reception and performance ( $250-$600 ) or performance only ( $15-$75 ) can be purchased at 312-341-2300, ChicagoDancersUnited.com or the Auditorium Theatre box office.