Episode 13 features Chicago-based teacher/choreographer Randy Duncan. We discuss the beginning of his dance career, transition into leadership, and natural talent for choreography. Duncan is known for his famously difficult and inspiring finales for Chicago’s Dance For Life finales.
Randy Duncan, a native of Chicago, who began his dance training with Ms. Geraldine Johnson and credits much of his artistic development with Harriet Ross, has the unique privilege to be a three-time recipient of Chicago’s prestigious Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreographer of the year. He has received numerous other awards including the Artistic Achievement Award from the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, three Black Theatre Alliance Awards, and the Gay Chicago Magazine After Dark Award. He earned an American Choreography Award Nomination for his choreography in the blockbuster movie Save the Last Dance starring Julia Stiles.
For the past 28 years he has been on the faculty of the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he now serves as Dance Department Chair and received the 2019 Faculty Legacy Award. He has been choreographing the finale the Chicago’s annual Dance For Life gala since 1994 and received the 2013 AIDS Foundation Chicago Civic Leadership Award for his work with Dance For Life.
We got to keep this world together, got to keep it moving straight
Love like we mean forever, so that people can relate
If you’re rolling to your left, don’t forget I’m on the right
Trust and forgive each other
A little love and we just might
Seal: Get It Together (lyrics)
Dance for Life (DFL), the annual fundraiser and performance that serves as the unofficial opening of Chicago’s fall dance season – much like everything else – is going online this year. Chicago Dancers United (CDU) presents Dance For Life 2020: United as One this week, culminating in a “virtual event” this Saturday evening at 6:30 PM CST. With social distancing guidelines still firmly in place and large indoor gatherings fodder for dreams, the 29th annual DFL will follow the path of most everyone and take to Zoom.
The 2020 line-up is bigger than usual too. Since everything is online, they can feature more companies works – 15 to be exact. You can access all the videos on the Chicago Dancers United (CDU) website and each day, they will feature three in a dedicated eblast and on social media. The week culminates with the final event (“not finale”) including a world premiere by Hanna Brictson to Get It Together by the artist Seal. “Hanna is a wonderfully talented and gifted dancer and choreographer,” said Randy Duncan, a CDU board member and frequent choreographer of DFL finales over the past 29 years. “Her work with large groups is astounding.” Michael Anderson, DFL’s artistic director agrees. “Hanna’s piece is lovely. She’s done such a great job. She’s the right generation and understands choreographing for the screen.”
Brictson admits the process wasn’t easy. “It was the hardest project I’ve done in my life,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for like two months, but I would do it again a million times.” Scheduling, casting, teaching choreography by video, lack of rehearsal time, structuring, oh – and social distancing created multiple roadblocks, but she persevered. With the aid of two dancers, she created 37 videos to teach 23 dancers the piece. They had one in-person rehearsal without everyone attending and an hour to rehearse and for HMS Media to film at the C5 studios. “The amount of situations to overcome was stressful, especially when you don’t have any bodies to create on. I did my best with imagining what might be cool, but when I choreographed it, I was still working with the limitation that the dancers couldn’t move outside of a box.”
The end result is a snapshot of our current reality. A group of dancers performing side-by-side, not touching, wearing masks in a large space, and still giving it their all. It is inspiring, heartwarming, and just a little sad at the same time. No costumes, no lighting, no Auditorium Theatre, no raucous crowd. It shows us what we have temporarily lost, while also proving that we still have each other. “I wanted it to be homey, inviting, and warm,” Brictson said. “It was very important to me to have dancers from different facets of the community. I really wanted to do something energetic and welcoming. I want people to have some joy.”
Remember CDU is a non-profit and DFL is a fundraiser, so while all of the videos showcasing companies from past years are available on the website, you do need to make a donation (I just did!) to access the final event, including Brictson’s world premiere. Your donation can be as small as $20 and the resources go to help The Dancers’ Fund and other CDU partners. “We are excited to continue our new partnership with the American Cancer Society and longtime partner the AIDS Foundation Chicago,” Anderson said.
Holding a fundraising event online has its own set of challenges, however there is a silver lining: an expanded audience. “It was definitely a benefit. that we can increase the number of companies we can showcase,” Anderson said. “It’s been wonderful for me to back into the archives and see all of these performances from the last 29 years.” And Duncan said, “The virtual gala and presentation gives us the opportunity to go nationwide, if not global! I have friends who will be watching from the Middle East and Europe.”
Dance For Life 2020: United as One, August 10-15. Donations of $20 or more provide exclusive access to the finale event hosted by NBC Chicago’s Cortney Hall and Matthew Rodrigues at 6:30 PM CST on Saturday, August 15. All programming is subject to change. All events are available at chicagodancersunited.org.
*Editor’s note: Like most other non-profit arts organizations, CDU had to make budget cuts (I have some first-hand experience in that arena). Earlier this year, they eliminated the Executive Director position. I know this decision created controversy in the Chicago dance community. I’m not discounting anyone’s views or concerns, but I am choosing not to address this here and instead focus on the positivity and community spirit that DFL brings each year. We need that now more than ever. I have a long history with DFL. I attended my first performance in 1998 when I first moved (back) to Chicago and months before that, I danced on the DFL/Roscoe’s float in the Pride Parade. It holds a special place in my little dancer heart ❤️ My unsolicited advice to DFL/CDU? Remember who you are…(said in a James Earl Jones as Mufasa voice).