A Black dancer in drag as Beyoncé is in the center of several other drag performers onstage.
Prince Lyons (center) as Beyoncé at 2018 Dance Divas Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Drag, in all of its glorious forms, has been a locus of revolt throughout the decades. In 2023, we are in a time when the very concept of “dressing in the mode not of one’s essential sex’” is in the bull’s-eye of crypto-fascist Republican lawmakers in many states. 

That’s why it seems like winning when an artist like Lizzo brings a battalion of drag performers onstage with her in Tennessee. And why producing even the most wholesome drag queen story hour can be a battle. In the culture wars of 2023, keeping simple performative ideas going in the face of adversity can be a way to quietly support and bolster the LGBTQ+ community. That’s also why it seems fitting that Dance Divas 2023, a performance series produced by Jeremy Plummer of C5 Entertainment, goes up this weekend at the Baton Show Lounge.

Dance Divas 2023: A Night at the Movies
Sat-Sun 5/20-5/21, 4:30 and 7 PM, Baton Show Lounge, 4713 N. Broadway, dancedivaschicago.com, $75 at the bar, $100 main floor, $150 for VIP reception, Sat 5/20, 5 PM

The concept is simple: Create dance pieces (choreographed by Plummer and cochoreographer Harrison McEldowney) around a single theme and set them on dancers who are put into drag (sometimes for the first time ever) for the performances. These aren’t seasoned drag performers, but they are professional dancers for companies such as the Joffrey, Giordano Dance Chicago, Chicago Tap Theatre, LEVELdance, and Chicago Movement Collective, to name a few. And then make the whole event a benefit for Chicago Dancers United, who are also the force behind Dance for Life, which makes financial aid available to professional dancers for health concerns and preventative medical care. Most professional dancers are contract employees, and very few companies offer health insurance to their dancers because many can’t afford it.

The dancers in the show are happy to volunteer their time to help other dancers and the community as they learn their choreography and put the show together. Joffrey dancer Evan Boersma is one of the first-timers this year. “I like being able to put on a show with other dancers in the community who I wouldn’t normally get to perform with. It’s fun to socialize with them and be in a show environment with dancers other than the ones that I perform with on a regular basis.” Nathaniel Ekman, the executive director of Chicago Dancers United, underscored the same message. “It’s a wonderful example of artists supporting other artists as Dance Divas unites our local top-tier professional talent for a fun and exciting evening that strengthens our thriving dance community here in Chicago.”

Boersma was also excited to participate after attending last year’s show and seeing the drag transformation of other dancers he knew. “It’s funny to see some of your friends and not recognize them at all,” he said. 

Transformation was also of interest to freelance dancer Jordan Ricks. He’s in the show a second time this year, after a showstopping “Proud Mary” number last year. Ricks said that embodying young Tina Turner was an interesting and engaging creative process. “As far as adding my own artistry to it, I did research. I watched videos of young Tina Turner and just seeing how effervescent she was and seeing that glow and watching her, you know, shimmy and roll was amazing. Although I don’t know exactly how she felt in that moment, I can use how she made me feel in that moment to fuel the movement.”

Ricks also described the moment of seeing himself in drag for the first time: “When I saw ‘Sparkle’ [his drag persona] for the first time, it was a very gender-euphoric experience. A light bulb went off, and I was like, ‘OK, I now have a place to express this hyperfeminine energy that I have within myself.’ That energy is something that I’ve been both celebrated and ridiculed for growing up, as a young queer kid from the south.”

That moment, combined with anti-drag legislation in states like Tennessee, makes this show an unexpected political act for Ricks. “I think [with] everything especially now, even if it’s not my core intention, drag is a form of activism. And it’s putting my foot down as a queer artist saying, ‘I’m here and I exist. Other queer artists are here, and they exist. We’re just here to show our art form and spread love and light and joy and our energy to the world.’ And I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

This year’s show, A Night at the Movies, will feature scenes and songs from classic films that the audience will recognize and have fun revisiting. The producers are tight-lipped about the actual show content. “We typically keep them all a secret so that it’s a huge surprise for the audience,” said Plummer.

Dance Divas was started by choreographer Tony Savino as an AIDS benefit for dancers living with the disease in 1996. “That was when that pandemic was much less manageable than it is today,” said Plummer. “[Tony] and many others were seeing a lot of their friends pass away and wanting to find a way to help. Of course, as dance artists at the time, none of them had the financial means to write a check to help research or to help people get medications. So they thought, ‘Well, what are we good at? We’re good at dancing, so let’s put on a show and try to raise some money.’”

That incarnation of the show ran for about a decade, during which Plummer started working as Savino’s assistant. When it ended, the show took a break for a few years and Plummer (with Savino’s blessing) relaunched it in 2017.

Today, says Plummer, “Thankfully, HIV is more manageable to live with. So we raise money for what’s called the Chicago Dancers’ Fund through the artist organization Chicago Dancers United. This fund provides financial support for dance artists or anyone working in the dance field. So if you’re a stage manager for a dance company or lighting designer for a dance company, you can apply for funds from the Dancers’ Fund for anything from health and wellness to critical needs. Our goal [with Dance Divas] is to raise as much money for that fund as possible.”

The show itself will offer up “traditional female impersonation” with high production values and a campy and fun experience for the audience. Plummer explained, “There’s always two rules when we go to write the show. Number one, it has to be fun for the cast to perform it, and number two, it has to be over-the-top entertaining for the audience. Because if you’re gonna come, we want it to be nothing like you’ve seen before. So if you’ve been to a dance concert, great. If you’ve been to a drag show, great, but it’s the best of both of those worlds.”

While the intent of the show is not to shine a spotlight on current events, the existence and continuation of such a tradition feel like a statement. The act of resistance of putting on drag today can be a tiny beacon for young queer kids and future drag performers living in hostile communities.

When asked what he would tell “little kid Jordan” if he, as an adult, could go back in time and speak to him, Ricks said, “Oh, wow. OK. I would tell them, ‘Hey, boo, you’re in for a ride. Just know that everything that you’re doing right now, all that energy that you feel right now, you don’t have to mute or quiet yourself down. What’s happening now will take you to places unimaginable, and you’re going to transform and evolve into an artist. The sky is not the limit nor space nor the universe or the heavens; the heights are endless for you.’”