Not strictly ballroom
SummerDance shimmies into its ninth season as the city's social-dance savior
It took some fancy footwork to create one of the most multicultural scenes in Chicago. But when Mike Orlove put the city's SummerDance program in motion nine years ago, his sole motivation was to provide an all-inclusive venue for the seemingly endangered social art of couples dancing.
In the early days of SummerDance, a medley of dance bands, ranging from salsa to swing, were booked Friday through Sunday evenings for a seven-week test run at Grant Park. Then, as now, Sundays were reserved for big bands and ballroom dancing. Instructors from across the city were summoned to provide hour-long group dance lessons before the music started, teaching whatever dance suited the performance to follow. And in the smoothest move of all, the city made it available for free.
The saddle-shoe-shod Lindy Hoppers, merengue-loving Dominicans and fox-trotting Freds and Gingers reliving their supper-club salad days ate it up. And the more timid hoofers have steadily swarmed the dance floor in their wake. Now, the best cheap-date option in town–and one of the city's most popular cultural programs ever–kicks off (literally) its ninth season on Wednesday 15.
The multicultural, multigenerational, socioeconomically diverse crowd hasn't changed, but the venue has. When ground was broken for Millennium Park last July, SummerDance headed south, to a leafy, secluded spot in the park just south of Harrison Street. The program was expanded to four nights, starting on Thursday, and an 11 week-long run. The new digs are pretty snazzy: The Park District has custom-designed a lush garden around the dance floor and added a concession booth and patio seating, where winded waltzers can refuel with an ice-cold beer or glass of wine.
Encouraged by the event's success, last year Orlove added a DJ series on Wednesday nights, enlisting Cultural Affairs associate programmer Brian Keigher, a former DJ, to book talent. For its inaugural year, Keigher brought out the big guns, bookending the series with Chicago house-music deities Derrick Carter and Frankie Knuckles. But the big names were no gimmick: This year's series is again packed with heavyweight spinners. (For more on this year's DJ series, see Clubs, page 58.)
Orlove says the evening's multiculti vibe provides a ringing endorsement of his brainchild. "That element really hasn't changed in nine years," he says. "This really reaches everybody. If you spent a day there, and just talked to ten people, my guess is those ten people would be from at least five or six different neighborhoods in Chicago–or five or six different countries. People have described SummerDance as a neighborhood block party, and that's true, but it's a block party made up of all the different neighborhoods in the city."
Latin music bands, especially, are a huge draw at SummerDance, a boon to Latin dance lovers who can't find large groups like these elsewhere. "There are not many places to dance to Latin music anymore," Orlove says. "Maybe four or five salsa clubs in Chicago actually have live bands."
The program's dance card is so full these days that it overshadows what is perhaps SummerDance's most amazing aspect: It boasts one of the city's best, and certainly most eclectic, lineups of live music. Credit goes to Orlove, who also oversees the World Music Festival in September. Los Carácuaros, an acclaimed ensemble that plays calentana–a complex, violin- and guitar-driven form of music native to the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacán–takes the stage June 23. Malian superstar Issa Bagayogo, who blends ancient West African rhythms and modern Western electro-pop beats, plays July 7. A good 60 percent of the groups, though, are part of Chicago's own dynamic, international-flavored music scene, Orlove says.
SummerDance has become so popular that, last year, dancers were squeezed onto the lawn next to the dance floor, and many fans now arrive simply to hear the music, plunking down lawn chairs on the sidelines where they can soak up the sensuous tango served up by octogenarian bandleader Franz Benteler's Royal Strings Orchestra (June 19) or the frantic tempos of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band (June 30).
How much bigger can SummerDance get before they have to pry up the dance floor and relocate again? Time will tell, but one thing's for certain: Social couples dancing in Chicago has got legs.
SummerDance kicks off weekly through August 28, Wednesday—Sunday (www.chicagosummerdance.org).