Kesha Pate Credit: Kesha Pate

COVID-19 couldn’t stop the 2020 Dance for Life. But it did turn the annual benefit performance, produced by Chicago Dancers United to raise money for its Dancers’ Fund and other charities, into a Zoom event.

Instead of gathering under the glowing arches of the Auditorium Theatre, and then, for some, heading to a gala after-party at the Hilton, viewers (who’d already had a week to enjoy archived performances from previous years) hunkered down in front of their computers Saturday night for some introductory remarks and a performance of a new work that, in the pre-virus world, would have been the event finale.

What they saw was a perfect-for-this-moment, no-contact ensemble piece choreographed by Hanna Brictson to Seal’s “Get It Together,” performed by 23 jean-clad, mask-wearing dancers who’d had to learn their steps in isolation. They convened only once, on the day it was filmed, but managed to look like they’d been moving to this music as a unit forever.    

Following the performance, CDU announced that the virtual event had raised $170,000—with expenses expected to be no more than $50,000. This was especially relevant news because, for the two previous months, the 29-year-old organization, which provides financial aid for medical bills to dance professionals facing critical illness, had come in for some intense criticism about its Dance for Life spending from someone who should know—its recently released executive director, Kesha Pate.

Pate’s position, as the organization’s only staff member, was abruptly eliminated May 19. On June 9 she posted a “Dear Chicago dance community” letter on Facebook, suggesting that the entire CDU board of directors resign, to be replaced by a smaller board with financial and operations expertise, plus an advisory board of dance professionals. 

According to Pate’s letter, the current CDU board is “toxic and dysfunctional,” and she was terminated after only nine months on the job because she “challenged their privilege.” She elaborated, at length, and when the post elicited a cease-and-desist letter from CDU’s lawyer, she posted that too. Then she followed up with a July 25 Facebook video in which she doubled down on everything, seeing it as her duty “to speak out.”

Pate says she was hired to change CDU, in part by expanding its services, but found that the leadership didn’t want to change. They came to an impasse in March, she says, when the board rejected her proposal to create a COVID-19 emergency fund that could help dance professionals with expenses beyond health care costs—things like housing and food. She also charged in her letter that the Dance for Life event, which is expensive to produce, is “an exclusionary, discriminatory facade that misrepresents its intentions and the distribution of the funds it raises to both donors and volunteers.”

“What they tell you they raise to help dance professionals and what they actually spend to help dance professionals is vastly different,” Pate wrote. When she calculated the philanthropic “return on investment” for Dance for Life, she told me, it was only about 26 percent.    

CDU’s 2018 tax filing (the most recent publicly available) appears to roughly confirm her estimate, at least for that year: the organization reported taking in a total of nearly $235,000 in contributions and grants, while giving out $58,000. Of that, $25,000 went to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which provides CDU with free office space and services. Donations to individual dance professionals in 2018 amounted to just 11 grants totaling $33,085.  

Board members, however, note that, since 2015, when CDU, which had been part of the AIDS Foundation, became an independent nonprofit, it has given out $378,527 in grants to individuals and to the AIDS Foundation, while producing a much-loved event that unifies and celebrates the Chicago dance community. So far this year, in response to COVID-19, they say they’ve given $23,000 to individuals, and have temporarily expanded what they’ll cover to include not only critical illness costs, but routine medical expenses like health insurance and co-payments for dance professionals financially impacted by the pandemic.  

Vice President Julie Burman Kaplan says they’re taking Pate’s post “very seriously,” and have had a series of virtual meetings with dancers about it. “Many arts organizations have found, because of COVID, that they needed to restructure,” Kaplan says. Given the unknowns, she adds, “we simply could not afford to maintain a salary. It was our fiduciary responsibility to protect the fund and make sure we could give to the people in need. We did not fire Kesha. We restructured. COVID changed the narrative.”  v