Having lost many close friends and dance colleagues due to HIV and AIDS, Keith Elliott, a member of Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre (JHCDT), felt it was time for Chicago dancers to take an active role in preventing the spread of the disease. Keith’s idea — both brilliant and simple — was to bring Chicago’s dance community together for one night…to Dance for Life.
In 1991, Keith and Todd Kiech began working to make Dance for Life a reality, enlisting JHCDT associate artistic director Harriet Ross to give the event creative force and impact. Elliott also asked HIV/AIDS community activist and skilled fundraiser Danny Kopelson, along with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s executive director Gail Kalver, to join him as co-founders.
The inaugural Dance for Life was held in June 1992 at the Organic Theatre. Every seat was sold. In following years, annual Dance for Life performances filled the Athenaeum Theatre, the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, each selling out weeks in advance. Dance for Life is proud to now be presented at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.
Today, more than 37 Chicago-based, professional dance companies and numerous choreographers have been presented by Dance for Life, supporting and showcasing the city’s unique diversity of talent, dance traditions and styles. Dancers, companies and choreographers generously donate their time, energy and artistry to the cause. Dance for Life remains the only annual opportunity for the incredibly talented, world-renowned professional dancers of Chicago to unite artistically to help their own: those who have been adversely affected by critical health issues that negatively impact their ability to dance, create and work.
The Dancers’ Fund, established by Harriet Ross in the early 1990s, provides assistance to members of the professional Chicago dance community facing critical health issues. More than $6 million has been raised by Dance for Life since 1992 for The Dancers Fund, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and 24 other AIDS prevention, treatment and advocacy organizations in Chicago.
In response to the changing needs of Chicago’s dance community, evolutions in the nature of HIV/AIDS’ impact and the growth of the annual event, Dance for Life incorporated as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization in 2014 and is now Chicago Dancers United.