It’s gala time! For 19 years, Keith Elliott and Chicago Dancers United have produced the premier dance fundraising event, Dance for Life. For one evening only — Saturday, August 21, dancers from some of Chicago’s top companies (Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theatre, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet, River North Chicago Dance Company and Thodos Dance Chicago) will perform at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance to raise money for HIV/AIDS care.
Back for the 19th year as well is audience-favorite Dean Richards (WGN-TV, WGN Radio, WGN America and NewsTalk 720, etc.) as Master of Ceremonies. The up-for-anything entertainment critic has upped his own ante by performing hilarious opening skits in years past. Switching things up this year though, is a top secret finale choreographed by local legend Harrison McEldowney, who often contributes his witty talents to the raffle portion of the show. Randy Duncan, who has choreographed the finale since 1994, will be back next year with a grand finale to celebrate the 20th anniversary.
Beneficiaries of the nearly $4 million raised so far from Dance for Life are: AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Brothers Health Collective, Chicago Child Care Society, Centro Romero, Dance for Life Fund, Tongabezi Trust School and the Young Women’s Empowerment Project. “The school is a big deal,” says Elliott. “We give them only $5000 a year. They created a community AIDS Awareness Day. They do education in the community. It is just one school and there are hundreds, but they really made a big deal with the money…$5000 goes a long way.” Also in the works is a documentary filming project.
RB caught up with the very busy and ever-jovial Keith Elliott to talk about the largest performance-based AIDS fundraising event in the Midwest.
RB: Tell me how this all got started.
KE: It all started…really 20 years ago, I was dancing for Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater and we started getting laid off for the summer and didn’t want to have a bunch of down time, so I started creating a concept of a concert to raise money.
RB: Did you already know what you wanted to raise money for?
KE: No. It was just an idea that I wanted to raise money. It felt natural to do it for AIDS, because there really wasn’t anything at the time that the dance community was doing.
RB: Was Joseph still alive?
KE: No, he had died by that time. I got a hold of Todd Kiech and said, “I can’t do this by myself!” Todd came aboard and we thought we’d just put on our own choreography so we’d have a show. Then I reached out to Harriet Ross, who was the Assoc Dir of Joseph Holmes at the time. I knew she had a lot of good ideas and connections and I said, “here’s my idea…what do you think?” She said, “Well, the choreography sucks!” in her nicest, Jewish way. “You should call up the big guys if you want to do a fundraiser.” I didn’t know I could do that. So she said, “Let’s go!” We went into her office and started calling. Everyone said yes, yes, yes! We found a date that worked and it sold out.
RB: You have a Spanish dance company that is performing this year. How do you decide who gets to perform?
KE: We’ve streamlined a little bit, so we have four anchor companies now. (Joffrey, River North, Gus Giordano and Hubbard Street). What we tried to do was create an opening slot for ethnic-type companies…this year we bring in Ensemble Español.
RB: Do you have a competition?
KE: It’s an adjudication process. They submit a tape of the piece that they want and I compile them on a dvd and send it out to three dance critics in the city. They know all the other companies, so we just ask them to look at the piece that is being submitted and really create a flow for the evening.
RB: Tell me about the documentary.
KE: It’s in the infancy stages. Right now we’re just trying to find out if we can get the money. We’re going to have to depend on a lot of angels real fast, because if it happens…Scott Silberstein from HMS Media, of course they are an Emmy Award-winning media firm…we’re working with them to make it happen pretty quickly.
RB: You would do it this year?
KE: Yes, film now for next year, then piece it together do all of the interviews. It’ll kick off probably in March next year (whenever sweeps are not) and then we’ll be able to air it to kick off our 20th year. We’ve already met with WTTW to try and get several airing dates. What we’d like to do is throw a viewing party to help raise money. The biggest thing about Dance for Life is that it needs to outreach more, because you need to make more and more people aware of the cause and the necessity for money. We have a couple of youth programs and we thought, why don’t we set up viewing parties at local schools. They pay a dollar, they get to view the tape and we send out somebody from Joffrey or Hubbard Street, dancers that would be proactive and feel good about the cause and what we’re trying to do. They could maybe teach a master class for 30 minutes. We’re trying to devise something to get them out there to heighten awareness on AIDS support and raise a little money. If the kids pay a dollar, it makes them feel philanthropic and they learn how to give. So, we’re working on that too. It will all be based around the documentary.
RB: What have been some of your favorite memories…either from the shows or behind the scenes?
KE: The first memory was “oh my…it’s going to be a lot of work!” We went in to the Organic Theater, and not being technically savvy, we brought aboard a girl from Barat College, she did all the tech stuff up there…we got to the theater the day of the show and all of the cords for all the lights were just in a pile. We spent hours just undoing the cords, then we had to plug in the lights, etc. At that point, I saw how you really have to prep every little thing. That was a learning curve that went real fast! The light at the end of this tunnel was when I opened the door and looked around the block and screamed “Sold Out!”, everybody was booing, but in a good way and saying, “we’ll be back next year!”
My favorite memory from the shows is just seeing everybody back stage…how they mingle and mix, when normally they wouldn’t or wouldn’t have the opportunity to. Everybody’s really cool, they’re there for the same purpose and I love, love, love the fact that they get it…that they’re donating their time to help raise money. A lot of them don’t realize we’re funding the school in Africa and its AIDS programs, we’re supporting yearly four health organizations here in the city — the main one being the AIDS Foundation.
Ticket are still available. For more information, please call 312.922.5812 or visit www.danceforlifechicago.com.