While Chicago is often seen as culturally divided, there’s one city-sponsored art form uniting multiple communities: dance. The city of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is in its 21st year of its SummerDance event.
The series of dance performances, which run from June through September, includes one-hour introductory lessons led by professional instructors, live music and an open dance floor. People of all ages and skill levels come together to sweat it all out on a 4,900-square-foot, open-air dance floor.
Chicago SummerDance began in Grant Park. After partnering with the Chicago Park District Department of Culture, Arts and Nature (CAN) in 2007, SummerDance in the Parks was able to spread the dancing bug –– along with a message of multi-cultural celebration –– to five different neighborhood parks.
“The diverse lineup showcases various traditional and modern dance styles from all corners of the globe,” said DCASE Marketing and Communications Officer Mary May.
Performances include a variety of genres from Bollywood to Cajun and everything in between.
CAN’s program and events manager Krista Bryski Richard said she is pleased with the success of the program thus far and wants to see it continue and grow.
“We’re featuring dance in every community across the city now, but this is such a successful business model we can build on,” Richard said. “Could we do SummerDance in all 600 [Chicago] neighborhood parks? Probably not. But our goal is to continue to have multiple genres represented and this has been a great contribution toward the dance genre.”
Richard said that the scale of the program is decided by the budget the city departments allocate for summer events. While sponsorship is also an option that would help the event expand, CAN ensures that SummerDance reaches each community within the city by choosing different park locations each year.
“We recognized not everyone can get downtown to attend free outdoor concerts and events,” Richard said. “We try to spread the wealth, and we try to cater the types of dance and live music to what the community tends to want.”
This year, SummerDance in the Parks was scheduled to pop up at Humboldt Park in the west part of the city, Jackson Park and Ping Tom Park in the south, Willye B. White Park in the north and Portage Park in the northwest.
This year’s program will feature the SummerDance-Off competition in Millennium Park on Aug. 26. Throughout the month of July, residents competed in local amateur footwork and “steppin’” contests for a spot in the competition.
“We wanted to highlight urban dance forms [that were] maybe more non-traditional but had bubbled up from Chicago’s dance scene,” Richard said.
On Aug. 12 Grant Park’s Spirit of the Music Garden buzzed with the energy of dancers and the booming base of the live band. The genre of the night was “steppin’,” an urban dance that originated in Chicago. Smooth jazz filled the air, although according to Tramell Davis, a lifelong stepper, up-tempo music is better suited for steppin’.
“What [the DJ is] playing now has more of a jazz feel. You can sit back and relax, and that’s what everyone is doing,” Davis said. “Usually if you go to steppin’ clubs, they’re parties. And no one is sitting down.”
Dressed in a monochromatic matching shirt and trousers combination and a black, Kangol hat, Abdullah Khadijah looked at home on the dance floor. The 67-year-old Chicago native said he has been dancing at SummerDance in the Parks for 15 years. He added that he has been boppin’ –– the predecessor to steppin’ –– since he was 13 years old and will continue to dance as long as he can walk.
“I pray every day for my health so that I can dance,” Khadijah said.
SummerDance takes place in the evening in Grant Park on Fridays and Sundays, and in neighborhood parks on Thursdays and Saturdays. You can access the full schedule here.