Amid an inequitable arts landscape, an innovative, multi-year initiative called the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project [CBDLP] has emerged to bolster Chicago’s most beloved Black dance institutions.
For more than a century, Chicago-based Black dance organizations and artists have pioneered numerous styles, including, modern, jazz, hip-hop, tap, and footwork. They’ve also helped introduce African dance to American audiences. Unfortunately, these contributions have often been overlooked, resulting in inequities in funding and performance opportunities between Black dance companies and their larger, majority-white counterparts; A report released in June 2019, “Mapping the Dance Landscape in Chicagoland” found that, in 2015, 56 percent of grant dollars awarded to dance organizations went to just three predominantly white companies.
In response, the CBDLP was launched later that year, with the aim to honor the rich history of Black dance in Chicago while securing a vibrant future for all Black dance forms. “The idea behind the project was to attempt to create a level playing field for these companies who have been doing the work for so long,” says CBDLP director Princess Mhoon.
CBDLP operates under the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Joyce Foundation, which jumpstarted the project with a $396,600 grant (the largest cultural grant that the organization has ever given), along with initial support from Doris Duke Foundation and DCASE. The Mellon Foundation, the Walder Foundation, the University of Chicago Women’s Board, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and generous individual donors have also provided support.
CBDLP’s first cohort comprised eight local Black dance companies handpicked for their artistic impact, technical excellence, and prominence in their respective communities, with legacy dance organizations like Joel Hall Dancers & Center along with emerging ensembles and training schools such as Forward Momentum Chicago, which represents a diverse mix of West African, modern, jazz, ballet, and more.
Once the cohort was selected, CBDLP focused on providing them with what Mhoon calls “four pillars” of support: capacity building, advocacy, archiving, and presenting.
Capacity building speaks to CBDLP’s goal of helping the dance companies improve their operations through marketing, funding, board development, and more. The pillar works hand-in-hand with advocacy, as the CBDLP works to expand the reach of each selected company.
“With this project, we advocate for the companies in different spaces that they have either not been able to access and penetrate,” Mhoon says. “So we do everything from facilitating introductions to funders to finding large scale shared performance opportunities for the entire collective.”
Through the process of archiving, the CBDLP aims to preserve and share the history behind the companies in the cohort and the broader Black dance community in Chicago. The project is currently working with multiple partners including the Newberry Library to organize historical collections that can be shared with institutions across Chicago.
The final pillar, presenting, gives the cohort of companies the opportunity to perform on a shared stage two to three times a year. Last summer, the project hosted a performance to celebrate the Year of Chicago Dance at Millennium Park, which Mhoon says drew more than 7,000 people. Through shared stage events, the companies share their audiences as well, which helps expand the overall reach and visibility of each respective company.
“The beauty is that we can cross pollinate their audiences and also create a bigger buzz collectively, and that’s what happened last summer at Millenium Park,” Mhoon says. “This is the front-facing aspect of it, because people have to see dance.”
From the start, the impacts of CBDLP on Chicago’s dance community have been undeniable. The project helped keep their first cohort afloat financially during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, Mhoon says, many have noted rises in their operational budgets and increased performance opportunities.
The project has also promoted a greater sense of community and solidarity among Black dance companies. “It has broken silos within the Black dance community,” Mhoon says. “There has been more collaborations, more shared knowledge, more shared resources and an overall feeling of camaraderie and solidarity and unity within the community.”
This year CBDLP announced its second cohort, which includes ten Black dance organizations, which represent a wider variety of styles; its members include trap- and footwork-based companies M.A.D.D Rhythms and the Era Footwork Collective, and youth arts organization Move Me Soul.
Looking ahead, leaders of CBDLP are looking to individualize the support and resources that companies receive and expand upon the project’s archival work. But no matter what phase the project may be in, the purpose remains the same: To support Black dance in Chicago. “This is an opportunity to learn about Black dance and expand our own educational knowledge,” Mhoon says. “Dance for us is another form of protest. It’s also an embodied knowledge that we can use to speak about our past without speaking about our past. It’s a celebration of who we are.”
Over the next three months, the Reader will be spotlighting each company in this year’s CBDLP cohort to showcase their work and their contributions to Chicago’s dance scene. Please join us in each issue through August 24 to learn more about these vital and creative groups.
The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is a program of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Their current cohort of local dance companies includes Chicago Multicultural Dance Center & Hiplet Ballerinas, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Move Me Soul, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, NAJWA Dance Corps, Praize Productions, and the Era Footwork Collective.
For more about CBDLP visit chicagoblackdancelegacy.org, and chicagoreader.com/special/logan-center-for-the-arts-at-the-university-of-chicago. Tickets to CBDLP events can be purchased here.