A group of people dancing in a park, with the Chicago skyline behind them
A scene from the 2021 Chicago Dance Month kickoff celebration Credit: Michelle Reid

Following years honoring public art, creative youth, theater, and music, the city of Chicago has designated 2022 the Year of Chicago Dance in recognition of an art form that is ubiquitous, burgeoning, diverse—and precarious. “The pandemic took a particularly devastating toll on our performing arts industry as shows were canceled, venues were closed, and artists faced financial insecurity,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement released by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “Through the ‘Year of Chicago Dance,’ we will be able to further revitalize our arts and culture scene as well as show off our incredible dance industry to the rest of the country. DCASE and I are proud to offer this well-deserved spotlight to the dance community, which continues to bring us beauty, culture, and experiences of a lifetime.”

“There has been a long awareness of the need to create a focus on dance,” says DCASE dance and theatre coordinator John Rich. “There’s so much happening, and it’s beautiful. But the resources have not always been there.” A See Chicago Dance survey published in 2019 pointed out that these resources have not only been scarce, they have not been well-distributed: in 2016, just three dance organizations received 56 percent of all philanthropic funding in the sector, with 86 percent of funds going to the top 20 organizations. Despite the fact that more than half of surveyed dancers and choreographers were people of color, only 9 percent of funding was directed towards communities of color. Twelve percent of dancers and dancemakers surveyed received no pay at all for their work—despite the field demonstrating overall growth in dance studios and in the number of dancemakers.     

“We’ve identified areas that we know are continuing to be areas of concern: funding, spaces for rehearsal and performance, capacity building, and sustainability,” says Rich. “In years past, there’s been a lot of attention on programming—and there will be great programming this year—but we’re also looking at this year as an opportunity to lean into the community. We are dance presenters at DCASE, and we want to be in community with dancers and dance organizations to get more people dancing, seeing dance, supporting dance, and creating dance. But we are also thinking about how can we start to create the policies and approaches to dance writ large that help make dance more sustainable, and address these core issues that have existed for some time in the dance community. We are thinking long-term.”

“The Cultural Center has a dance studio, and the studio should become a broader asset to the community, so we’re revamping a program to make it available for dancers and companies to use through an application process,” he says. “It’s only one space, but it starts to address the need for more spaces. Dance is a labor—how much time goes into crafting and making a work that only may have one or two or three performances? That single event is not all of the labor that goes into making that piece—if the work of dance becomes more legible and valued as part of the making, there’s a financial aspect to that as well. And if you have financial precarity, how does that impact your ability to address any health concerns that come up? How can we achieve more equity? How can we communicate better across the sector? There should be opportunities to connect as a community and collaboratively address these issues.”

Organizations partnering with DCASE include the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, Chicago Dancemakers Forum, See Chicago Dance, Art on the Mart, and Night Out in the Parks at the Chicago Park District. Representatives from these organizations affirmed a desire to support, present, and celebrate dance in all its forms during and beyond this citywide initiative.

People dance at the SummerDance in the Parks series at Davis Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood; September 2021. Courtesy DCASE

“The tenth anniversary of Night Out in the Parks will be distinguished by its diversity of unique arts programming citywide. Residents will experience everything from cultural world dance like Aztec, West African, Indian, Southeast Asian to hip-hop, tap, ballet; performers of all ages will dance, sing, engage, and activate parks with robust cultural events in 2022,” says Rosa Escareño, Chicago Park District interim superintendent and CEO. “We look forward to celebrating the Year of Chicago Dance through our Night Out in the Parks where we will welcome over 100 local artists and organizations creating a hybrid of dance and music, theater, nature, and festival performances throughout our many parks in Chicago.”

Chicago Dancemakers Forum celebrates the Year of Chicago Dance with Elevate Chicago Dance: eMerge, a festival highlighting the extraordinary artistry of Chicago’s radically diverse dancemakers. In addition, throughout the year Chicago Dancemakers Forum will offer regular artist-to-artist gatherings for local dancemaking artists to network, share their current artistic practice, and engage in open dialogue,” says CDF programs and communications director Shawn Lent. “Just like the hashtag in #YearofChicagoDance, I hope that Chicago Dancemakers Forum can bring us together, living up to the organization’s commitment to break the isolation faced by the city’s disparate dancemakers and dance communities. People around the world need to know and respect the dance made here, and we can all help better support its makers.” 

John Boesche’s 7 Soliloquies, presented with Art on the Mart, 2020. Courtesy DCASE

“Everyone knows Chicago as the birthplace of a variety of music genres, including jazz and house music, but Chicago’s contributions to the art of dance go hand-in-hand with this musical legacy,” says Cynthia Noble, executive director of Art on the Mart. “Art on the Mart is proud to provide a prominent canvas for local dancers, choreographers, and visual artists to showcase their work.”

“Now, more than ever, our programming includes opportunities for community-building and networking, critical thinking and conversation, performances, and the celebration of dance and those who make it possible in Chicago,” says Julia Mayer, executive director of See Chicago Dance. “We see the chance to boost both of our twin constituencies: dance artists and organizations on the one hand, and dance audiences on the other hand. One very exciting initiative in 2022 will be the realization of a community needs assessment that has been a goal of mine since I came on board as ED a year and a half ago. We want to better understand what dancers and organizations need from SCD and how we can help leverage resources that we know are available in this city. After two years of a pandemic, what folks need has changed. It’s a whole new world.”

“The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project will celebrate the Year of Chicago Dance by continuing to amplify the diverse voices in dance throughout the city,” says Princess Mhoon, strategic program manager of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project. “We will continue to support dance programming, facilitate access to funding, and build capacity for senior and artistic leadership of the project’s eight partner companies. CBDLP will also launch a historic archive project that aims to preserve and celebrate the history of Black dance in Chicago and will present spring and summer performances that highlight these companies for the public to enjoy.”

Lucky Plush Productions (Kara Brody, Michel Rodriguez Cintra, A. Raheim White, Melinda Jean Myers, Jacinda Ratcliffe, Rodolfo Sánchez Sarracino, Meghann Rose Wilkinson) performance during Elevate Chicago Dance 2018”at the Chicago Cultural Center, courtesy Chicago Dancemakers Forum

“There are so many ways we engage with movement,” says Rich. “We hope this year is a call to action to the city to think about how movement is part of your life and expand on what that means to you. Maybe that looks like attending a SummerDance program with your whole family to learn salsa from a beginning level. Or maybe it’s going out to your neighborhood park for a free dance program. Can people be curious and courageous about how dance can be part of their lives?”

“We’re really looking to do this in community,” he says. “There will be more investment. There will be more dance funding. We want to be in partnership. We should be talking to each other across the dance sector more and problem solving together. There’s a lot of genius in the dance community. We want to be in this shoulder to shoulder.”