“No finance, no dance.” I’ve opined in these pages more than once about the scarcity of funding for dance in Chicago, but I’ve never heard anyone put the need more succinctly—or snappily—than Homer Hans Bryant, founder and artistic director of Chicago Multicultural Dance Center. Bryant’s dance school and the Hiplet Ballerinas—the company performing his patented, crowd-pleasing fusion of hip-hop and pointe—are part of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, an historic effort to put capacity-building dollars into the coffers of under-resourced, Black-led dance companies.
A 2019 report found the distribution of already-scant dance dollars in Chicago is dramatically skewed. Over half of all grant funding went to just three companies—all majority white and working in Eurocentric forms—and that sixty percent of Chicago dance companies operate on an annual budget of less than $50,000. Partially in response to that notorious and oft-cited report (at least in dance circles), the Joyce Foundation teamed up with the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts to create CBDLP, which provides three years of funding, administrative and marketing support, performance opportunities and archival services to eight companies: Chicago Multicultural Dance Center & Hiplet Ballerinas, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, NAJWA Dance Corps, Muntu Dance Theatre, Red Clay Dance and Ayodele Drum & Dance. The first cohort wrapped up in 2022 with a memorably joyful concert in the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The project reboots this spring with a larger pool of funds, thanks to a bigger gift from the Joyce and a match from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—widening the cohort circle. The first six of the companies listed above return for round two, joined by new members M.A.D.D. Rhythms, youth-focused Move Me Soul, women-led Praize Productions and The Era Footwork Crew.
CBDLP director Princess Mhoon says the inclusion of tap dance and footwork—a Chicago-born street dance—into the second iteration of the project is a “no-brainer. A project gets started and it takes so much effort just to get it up and running,” she says. “There was always a desire to see as many art forms as possible. It takes time to build the plan and then the budget. It was a first thing voiced from the companies: ‘Hey, there are other companies that should be here with us.’ That was especially true for M.A.D.D. Rhythms because [founder] Bril [Barrett] has been doing so much work for so long.”
For Ayesha Jaco, founder of Move Me Soul, one of the most valuable aspects of the project will be quality time with cohort members who have been working in the field for decades. Jaco says she started Move Me Soul to give the next generation a similar experience she had learning a broad range of styles as a young dancer in the city’s Gallery 37 programming. Jaco’s connection to other companies in the project are longstanding; she studied with Bryant at Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, she danced with Najwa and Muntu, she sends Move Me Soul youth-company members interested in dancing professionally to study with Deeply Rooted. “It’s a full-circle moment of wanting to introduce arts to young people on the West Side,” she says. “Having a platform like CBDLP to get acclimated with our teachers and create a shared space—to sit at the feet of those companies that have been around for fifty-plus years—being part of this cohort has been a dream come true, to have a who’s-who of Black dance in one space.”
Move Me Soul joins Forward Momentum Chicago as a second education-focused organization. Mhoon says it was important to have two youth-oriented organizations in this round for peer support.
The ten companies in the new edition of the CBDLP will perform March 25 and 26 at the Logan Center in a program entitled “Sans Pareil.” Mhoon says the name of the show is a nod to Chicago’s founder, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. “We’re celebrating the past and the present of the city,” she says. “There’s a synchronicity of Lake Shore Drive being renamed after du Sable. And Katherine Dunham visited Haiti and the technique she codified came from the Haitian and Caribbean traditions.”
The weekend will feature a performance by youth ensembles on Sunday afternoon and professional company performances on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Later this year, CBDLP companies will appear in Art on the Mart—the video art series that turns the façade of The Mart into a monumental moving canvas—and live at Ravinia in September.
One notable difference in the second iteration of CBDLP—aside from the bigger budget and number of groups—is a shorter cycle: Two years instead of three. The condensed project period will mean more capacity-building support for each company, if for a shorter duration. And while the growth of CBDLP is a notable step on a path to funding equity in dance, Mhoon points out that the project’s budget—around $1 million, including additional funding from the Walder Foundation, the Chicago Women’s Board and the Driehaus Foundation—isn’t all that much divvied between ten companies over two years. She’s continuing to fundraise to keep the project growing.
I ask Mhoon what her hopes are for the future of the CBDLP, and if there are other Black dance styles she would like to see represented. “We’re grappling with everyone having so many derivatives of their culture exist, whether it’s Afro-Latin, Cuban, house dancing, aspects of hip-hop,” she says. “We’re not limited in our thinking in terms of techniques either as an outgrowth of Black dance, or a cousin, or a direct link. I just feel like, it’s dance at the end of the day. We’re exploring as many ways as possible to be inclusive of our brothers and sisters who might adopt what we consider to be Black dance.”
Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project in “Sans Pareil” at the Logan Center for the Arts. March 25 and 26, Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 6pm and Youth performance Sunday at 2pm. Tickets at uchicago.edu.