Dancing for Life, a Chicago Choreographer is Honored

January 28, 2013

A video of the 2008 Dance for Life finale, choreographed by Randy Duncan.

Before Randy Duncan found the world’s stage, he got down in the living room.

Growing up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago in the 1960s and ‘70s, Duncan would dance with his sister in front of the television, trying to emulate the R&B moves on Big Bill Hill’s Chicago show “Red Hot and Blues” and the funky rhythms of “Soul Train.”

“I always knew that I wanted to perform in front of audiences,” said Duncan (at right).

It would be an egregious understatement to say that he achieved that goal. Duncan, now 54, is a nationally renowned choreographer who has inspired countless audiences with his stunning designs of human movement. He has been lauded with numerous awards; his work has been performed by dance companies all over the world. And every year, beginning in 1994, Duncan has choreographed the finale for Dance for Life, Chicago’s annual dance performance raising money for HIV/AIDS programs.


Duncan has been a “uniquely powerful storyteller of love and compassion in the age of AIDS,” said David Ernesto Munar, president/CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC).

On April 18, at AFC's Annual Dinner, he will be honored as this year’s recipient of the Civic Leadership Award.

“For years, Randy has been an invaluable partner to AFC and Dance for Life, donating his time and his choreography,” Munar said. “His productions, so poetic and visceral, have left a lasting impression with thousands of people – all for the noble purpose of helping those living with HIV.”

Multiple dance companies perform every year at Dance for Life, which raises money for AFC and the Dancers’ Fund. Duncan’s finales bring together dancers from each company, often ending the show with feelings of triumph, longing and joy.

Keith Elliott, co-founder of Dance for Life, said of Duncan: “Through his honest and soulful movement qualities, Randy is able to drive the  audience to tears and elation. His choreography elicits a compassion for others and truly leaves you feeling blessed. A true movement genius, Randy is a choreographic force unparalleled by others.”

Duncan first became involved with Dance for Life back in 1992, when Elliott, a former Joseph Holmes dancer himself, first staged the benefit event. In 1994, Duncan floated the idea of a finale that would bring the dancers together and he’s been doing it ever since.

His deep ties to the HIV cause extend back to the death of his close friend and mentor, Joseph Holmes, in 1986. When he was just 15 years old, Duncan was accepted into the Joseph Holmes Dance Company. It was a watershed moment for a prodigious teenage talent.

“Joseph became a good friend and almost like a big brother to me,” Duncan said. “I grew under his guidance.”

Joseph Holmes, back left, and Randy Duncan, back right, with the Joseph Holmes Dance Company in the early 1980s.

Holmes was a “tyrant in the studio,” Duncan said, but a warm and hilarious man when he was off the clock.

In 1986, he died at age 38 of AIDS-related causes.

“It was devastating to me and to the dance community at large,” said Duncan, who would take over as the dance company’s artistic director.

In 1993, Duncan left the Joseph Holmes Dance Company; the company disbanded shortly thereafter. But for Duncan, “the phone never stopped ringing.”

He went on to teach at the University of Arizona before returning to Chicago to teach at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he now works as chairman of the dance department. He continued to choreograph works for companies such as the Joffrey Ballet, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, River North Chicago Dance Company, Bat-Dor Dance Company of Israel and the Ballet Met of Columbus, Ohio.

Along the way, Duncan was named recipient of Chicago’s prestigious Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreographer of the Year — three times. He received numerous other awards including the Artistic Achievement Award from the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters and three Black Theatre Alliance Awards for theatre. He earned an American Choreography Award Nomination for his choreography in the blockbuster movie Save the Last Dance, starring Julia Stiles.

His work with Dance for Life stands out in his mind as a distinct accomplishment.

“It’s just so delightful to work with the dancers, who want to be there and want to be a part of my work. It’s an inspiring process,” Duncan said. “I’m just as happy and as enthusiastic now as I was when I first started. It’s a great honor just to be a part of this.”


For more information and to purchase tickets for AFC's 2013 Annual Dinner, “A One Woman Show: An Evening with Paula Poundstone,” on April 18, 2013, at the Hilton Chicago, call Rhett Lindsay at (312) 334-0935.

Categorized under Inside Story.

Recommended Articles