By Tori Marlan

Lois Weisberg, has a way of making things happen, even turning the kitschiest of ideas into a sensation–who would have thought the cows would fly? So when the head of the Department of Cultural Affairs began contriving to start a dance craze, nobody in her office pointed out the absurdity of the concept.

Weisberg, who’s known for knowing everyone in Chicago, got the idea that everyone in Chicago should be doing the same line dance at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This millennial moment of unity would be part of a series of dance events called “Dance ‘Til the Dawn of the New Millennium.” The scary thing is it just might work. If anyone has the power to manufacture a cultural phenomenon it’s Weisberg. The city hired a choreographer.

A musical theater veteran, a former member of the River North Dance Company, and a big fan of the Electric Slide, Harrison McEldowney knew that the trick would be to create something accessible to people of all ages and “degrees of danceability”–something like the Macarena: heavy on arm gestures, light on footwork, and “so queer you can’t help but do it.”

McEldowney says, “At first I thought they wanted a little kick-line thing to a Chicago standard, like ‘My Kind of Town,’ and I thought, Oh, that’ll really catch on with everyone under 50.”

He persuaded the city to commission an original composition to accompany the dance, and then worked closely on it with the composer, Wade Hubbard. Hubbard supplied a mid-tempo dance beat with sampled drum loops, a celebratory groove “that’s not disco,” and a horn section, which he included as a tribute to the city’s jazz history. A bluesy voice over the track implores listeners to “Do the Milly.”

Told to make local references in the song–the idea was to unite the city, after all–McEldowney and Hubbard packed the refrain with sports heroes and landmarks. McEldowney added related gestures: shooting air baskets at “Move it back, it’s the Jordan attack,” swinging air bats at “Boogie to the beat with that Sosa style.” He came up with slightly less literal movements to correspond to landmarks, relying on index fingers to represent the John Hancock Center’s spires and borrowing the “YMCA” M from the Village People to represent the Magnificent Mile, perhaps hoping for a subliminal galvanizing effect.

The city has a more overt plan for galvanizing the masses. A five-month publicity assault for the Milly begins this week with McEldowney demonstrating the dance at a press conference in Grant Park. Channel Five, either swelling with civic pride or desperate for filler, will air Milly lessons on its morning program every day for a week. In the coming months, instructional videos will be sent to dance studios, cable television stations, public schools, camps, and the Park District. The Milly CD will be given to radio stations. “Milly ambassadors”–most of them city employees–will fan out all over the city to stage “Milly Moments,” teaching the steps at street festivals and special events, under the Picasso, and at the Field Museum.

McEldowney taught the dance to the ambassadors and some dance instructors at the Cultural Center in early July. Of the 30 people there, all but three were women, and many were seniors. They followed along step by step, gesture by gesture, in high heels and loafers and tennis shoes and, in one case, a wheelchair, gleefully pointing their index fingers at the ceiling and shooting air baskets and swinging air bats. They said it was fun.

Weisberg, too, says she is pleased with the Milly: “We got what we ordered.”