Summer Dance Chicago

summer dance
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The heart of summer has arrived: the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, the neighborhood ice cream trucks are driving everyone crazy with their wobbly “Pop Goes the Weasel” racket, and Chicago Summer Dance is in full swing. In its fifteenth year, this wonderful concert/dance institution is one of my favorite continuous events to attend every year, and is one of the best things about summer in the city. As we all know, on any given day in Chicago during these glorious few months of nice weather, there are ten or twenty great activities to choose from, but this is the one that shows up on my absolute “can’t miss” list every year.

You can catch Chicago Summer Dance Thursday through Saturday, July 7 through September 18. The events, all free and are held in the great outdoors, mostly in Grant Park at 601 S. Michigan, but also a handful in Humboldt Park, Ping Tom Park in Chinatown, Jackson Park at 63rd Street Beach, and at Navy Pier. Each night focuses on a different style of music from around the world, and attendees are invited to learn the dance style associated with the music, before a live band takes the stage to kick the proceedings into high gear. The dance lessons, demonstrated by top-notch instructors affiliated with dance schools from around Chicago, take place during the first hour, starting at 6pm (4pm on Sundays). This is a chance for everyone — kids, grandparents, singles on the move, even the less than dexterous — to limber up and try to commit to memory as many of the complicated double-halfstep-backward-twist steps they can before the band starts.

After a short break, participants can enjoy a chilled libation and the skyline in sunset splendor, and then the band comes out to get the crowd going. It’s a perfect setup for musicians: they’ve got a built-in, enthusiastic audience ready to jump (with little to no encouragement) onto the dance floor to test their choreography retention.

The group lineup for 2011 includes a dizzying variety of musical styles: zydeco, salsa, country, swing-jazz, samba, soul, Romany, and on and on. When you consider each musical style is inextricably married to a traditional dance style, and the fact that you will be dancing, in the authentic tradition or otherwise, every time you show up, that dizzy feeling, good dizzy not bad dizzy, may stick around for the whole summer.

The two nights I’ve attended so far couldn’t have been a better omen for the rest of the season. I saw Nabori, a traditional Puerto Rican salsa group, at the Humboldt Park boathouse in the heart of Puerto Rican Chicago. The Grant Park setting is really the flagship headquarters of the event, but seeing this music on this turf was a perfect match. It was a community event — families came out to picnic, dog-walkers stopped in for a gander and a listen, even little league baseball teams wrapped up their games and mustered up enough energy to shimmy a little. The band was tight as a timbale snare, playing that big-band music like the future of the world’s happiness depended on it. But half the fun was watching the salsa dancers synchronizing moves and spinning lines worthy of olympic medals.

The next night I took my two-year-old daughter, Savaii, downtown to experience Romany music in Grant Park where the Chicago Park District has installed a massive, 3500 square-foot hardwood dance floor for the dancers and a professional all-whether stage for the musicians. We had an absolute ball during the dance “class” portion, led by an eminently patient, good-natured, and talented instructor from the Ethnic Dance Chicago school. Savaii’s technique was rooted more in interpretive avant-garde, while my role was to keep us from getting stepped on by the enormous twirling circles of dancers holding hands. Later, the band, Orkestar Sloboda, came on stage and featured a fantastic female vocalist who doubled on upright bass, and a phenomenal accordionist who shot flurries of speedy notes into the air like a confetti gun. Drums, keyboards, and acoustic guitar rounded out the sound and propelled the music through its distinctive “start slow, accelerate gradually, end loud and fast” format, which never fails to excite the dancers and clapping bystanders.

If you’ve never been to Summer Dance Chicago, then get up off your butt and shake it on down there. You won’t be sorry, trust me. Bring your family, your friends, your neighbors — this is Chicago at its diverse, joyous best. Even if you’re by yourself and wondering what to do on one of these lazy, hazy evenings, you would be remiss not to make your way to one of these concerts. A lot of singles show up at these Summer Dance concerts, and I can see why. With the general atmosphere of casual fun where everyone is encouraged to join in the dancing, you are guaranteed to make friends. As for myself, I have the perfect dance partner, a spinning, giggling two-year-old girl, smiling under the stars.

John Paris

About John Paris

Born in Cincinnati, raised in California, John has lived in a lot of great cities -- Montréal, San Francisco, Boston -- but now calls Chicago home sweet home, and has done so longer than anywhere else. Leaving the hills behind, he has found comfort in the flatness of one of the largest grids in the world. Neighborhoods divided into quadrants, divided into city blocks, divided into equal rectangular plots would seem to be a recipe for a grim, constricted civic culture. Not so, says John -- we Chicagoans are blessed by our situation. As inhabitants within the template of boulevards, and streets, and avenues, we dance on a perfect dance floor. The swirling, tumbling activity of circular pegs amused by square slots is the real creative genius of this fair city. Onward circular pegs!

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