Bollywood Groove performs for SummerDance in Place on July 8. Credit: Courtesy DCASE

Summer in the city usually means sultry nights of outdoor picnics, plays and concerts galore in the parks, and, best of all, a dance floor in the Spirit of Music Gardens in Grant Park, where, five nights a week, any and everyone can get together to bhangra, boogie, and bend a toe with neighbors, friends, and strangers—all to live music by local bands. Don’t know how? It’s OK! Because before the band gets hot, there’s a dance lesson for beginners led by a Chicago dancer or dance troupe. But whether you’re learning a basic eight for the first time or have honed your technique for years, everyone is welcome on the checkerboard dance floor on Michigan and Ida B. Wells.

Chicago SummerDance began 24 years ago, when philanthropist Francie Comer happened across a joyful group of dancers by the fountain at Lincoln Center in New York City. She and her husband joined in, and when they got home, she suggested that Chicago needed a Midsummer Night Swing of its own to Lois Weisberg, then the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The rest is history. 

“What’s more dynamic than night coming upon Chicago’s beautiful skyline, the little Tivoli lights flickering over a canopy above the dance floor, and the sounds of some of Chicago’s best bands playing outside in Grant Park?” Comer said to the Tribune in 1997. “It’s dynamite, it’s free, and you’re surrounded by all these wonderful cultural institutions.” Over the years, Chicago SummerDance has expanded to five nights a week for nine weeks, bringing movement and music enthusiasts together to celebrate Chicago’s most sociable season. 

But festival season in Chicago is going underground this year, with public parties becoming private home affairs. “Like other presenters in the city and elsewhere, we’ve continued to watch the science and situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, making the decision to transition summer festivals into virtual experiences,” says John Rich, dance and theater coordinator and SummerDance programmer of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. For beloved SummerDance, this means SummerDance in Place, a series of six 30-minute dance lessons followed by 60 minutes of music, premiering on YouTube Wednesday nights at 5:30 PM, with the last four programs also broadcast on WTTW Prime.

“The bands are being prerecorded at various sites in the city,” explains Rich. “A longtime partner with SummerDance is the Chicago Park District. In light of that, we’ve used Millennium Park as a backdrop for some of our productions, the rooftop of the field house in Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown, and the lawn and the gymnasium at Calumet Park on the far south side. The parks are also available to people, so this has been an important partnership this year to encourage people to responsibly be outside and enjoy the spaces the city has to offer.”

“All the artists are from Chicago, and the images the artists are being presented in front of are Chicago icons,” he says. “Even though a person may not be able to be with a large group at SummerDance, they can experience salsa band Afinca’o performing in front of Cloud Gate on July 4 and feel the city through local music and an iconic image. The same can be said of DJ iLLEST and Bollywood Groove on July 8—shimmering in the background is Lake Michigan. These evocative images [can] help people feel connected to the city and the artists of the city.”

SummerDance typically features social dance heavily, and Rich says, “People are staying safe with partners or family or they have a circle of family and friends they are relating with. We are advising people to be safe and continue to practice safe distancing programs. In the lessons, there’s some emphasis on individual footwork and some focus on partner work if you have a partner to dance with. The important thing about SummerDance is that anybody can dance to any theme. It’s just about being moved to the music. People are encouraged to move in a way that’s meaningful to them and express the joy of being in their bodies and celebrate the experience of moving to music.”

“One of the profound things about SummerDance is that it feels like the entire city shows up to dance together,” says Rich. ”It’s certainly a beloved institution in the city. People have made lifelong friendships and met their partners and spouses. It’s a convivial place where bonds are made, and you see the same people year after year. If there’s a silver lining to SummerDance in Place, my hope is that it will help more people discover SummerDance and look for us when we’re back in park spaces.”

“This year, I hope people dance like no one is watching and feel free to express themselves through movement. Learn a few steps. Learn some salsa. Improvise to house music. Perhaps cumbia is new to people, or line dancing, or Bollywood. SummerDance is a place of friendship, exploration, and fun. I hope people engage in a way that’s meaningful to them. Perhaps they make friends online or dance with neighbors through the fence. Maybe one side of the block is having a small party. There’s many ways to engage. The important thing is to have fun and experience the joy.” He notes that those seeking to share their experiences can hashtag #chicagosummerdance. “We would love for people to post videos of them dancing or a move they want to share with the world and can teach.”

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This Wednesday night, with a house dancing lesson by Imania Detry and a set of music by DJ Deeon, accompanied by footworkers Marquis aka Adoniz and Tony (Wicked) Anderson, Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered an introduction to the series: “While we all reflect on America’s painful legacy of racial injustice, we invite you to experience the healing power of music and dance. This series is an opportunity for virtual connection and unity.”   v

SummerDance in Place runs every Wednesday in July, 5:30-7 PM, with a special July 4 edition at 5 PM. Complete schedule here.