Desueño Dance at 2020 Chicago Dance Month’s Wave Wall Moves on Navy Pier Credit: Philamonjaro

Chicago Dance Month returns for a ninth time this June with in-person events featuring Chicago dancers and dance companies outdoors at Navy Pier and McKinley Park. Previously held in April, this year’s celebration launches a whole summer of Saturdays featuring dance at Navy Pier produced by See Chicago Dance. There will also be an online presentation June 24 as part of Chicago Takes 10, a virtual tour of the performing arts in Chicago sponsored by the Walder Foundation

“I always want to have as many people participate in Chicago Dance Month as I can absolutely fit,” says SCD community engagement manager Surinder Martignetti, who has produced Chicago Dance Month for several years and whose own background in dance includes bhangra, ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary, Russian folk dancing, and Scottish highland dancing. “I want to have representation of different areas of the city and different genres of dance—concert dance, street dance, cultural dances—the depth and breadth of the Chicago dance community.” Through a selection process that is as inclusive as possible (“Who’s doing stuff? Who wants to do stuff? Who’s available for what date?”), SCD strives to present nearly every dance organization that responds to their winter call for proposals, in keeping with their mission as a service organization for the Chicago dance community. 

Founded in 2003, “SCD started out as a marketing initiative, where the focus was helping smaller dance companies and individual dance artists reach a wider audience and sell tickets,” explains executive director Julia Mayer. “Over the last several years, especially with the pandemic, there has been a shifting focus to the well-being of the community with the recognition that our roots of our history are in a particular model of promotion of often Eurocentric dancing and dance presentation. Part of what we are doing is working to diversify who we serve and how we serve to include advocacy and education.”

“The people of Chicago, both audiences and the dance industry, realized there needed to be more than a calendar of events,” says Martignetti. “It grew organically from the calendar to marketing assistance. People started coming to us with questions—and that’s where the service organization part of SCD came together.” Developed to focus visibility on the spring seasons of many dance companies at once, Chicago Dance Month continues to amplify the existing work of companies and dance artists in the city. “I don’t really consider us a presenting organization, even though we present pop-up events,” she says. “I produce these events in service to what people are doing in the community to bring dance to areas of the city and people of the city who wouldn’t normally see dance. I love those moments of just happening upon dance. Those are the most beautiful interactions.” 

This year, Martignetti speaks with particular enthusiasm about the Scavenger Hunt, a self-guided tour on June 9 and 30 through McKinley Park featuring dance performances along the route. “It’s a beautiful wooded area, and there’s a garden and green space and lots of interesting spaces to dance in,” she says. “We’ve got Indian dancing and belly dancing and Middle Eastern dancing, films I’m projecting on the side of the fieldhouse, and contemporary work.” On safety protocols, she notes that the park district requires masks on its grounds and adds, “We’re keeping the groups small and doing several walk-throughs of the park to make sure there’s room for people to spread out and stay socially distanced.” For audience members who want to learn more about dance, volunteers will be stationed by each performing group to assist and offer information. 

As the Chicago dance community continues to cope with the global pandemic and a nationwide racial reckoning, Martignetti and Mayer offer perspectives on how SCD functions as a service organization.

“Last year was really hard,” says Martignetti, who served as interim executive director of SCD before Mayer’s appointment in August. “I made a lot of phone calls and health care check-ins to everyone on the SCD member list several times the first few months of the pandemic—even if it was as little as leaving a voicemail saying, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of you, here’s my number—please call.’ I had some conversations that were open and real. It was what I needed and what others needed at the time.” 

The invitation to reach out for dialogue and resources remains open to the community. “We’re offering all members the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a question or I want to learn something’—call me and I’ll give you ideas and resources and things to think about. I have conversations about topics like, we need to restructure our board, who can I go to to find grant money, we have a show coming up and we don’t know how to market to social media. I’m here for people to talk to and I’m never more than a phone call away.”

“Being mindful of the effect the pandemic has had on ability for artists to make a living doing their work, we’re going to do a series of training and mentoring opportunities for dance on film,” says Mayer on SCD’s partnership with Building a Resilient Performing Arts Sector, an initiative sponsored by the Walder Foundation. “That program will launch later in the year. There will be workshops addressing fundamentals of creating dance on film, and, in 2022, there will be a more concentrated mentoring phase where some of the participants from 2021 will have the opportunity to create a full work.”

For the longer term, Mayer says, “We’re developing a dance amplification committee, which will include a couple of our board members but be primarily a group that comes together, some folks we invite, and that people in the group invite. One of the things we’re mindful of is a traditional white supremacist framework of who’s the gatekeeper and who isn’t. We’re in the process of developing a mission and purpose for that committee.”

In the meantime, she mentions, “We have our journalism platform that grew out of an idea that if there was more writing about dance, it would help people know about dance and sell tickets. With the transition away from dance criticism for the papers of note in Chicago, I think our platform has filled a gap to provide exposure to particular artists and dancers and ideas and considerations, failures, and missteps, everything that’s human about what our organization and the community is feeling.”  v