Chicagoans of the Year 2006 - Keith Elliott and Harriet Ross

Gotta Dance // Keith Elliott and Harriet Ross // Dance for Life

Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp
Elliott and Ross
Harriett Ross & Keith Elliott

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, with several of his friends dying, Keith Elliott looked for a way to battle the disease. A dancer with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, he figured: dancers dance; why not a benefit concert?

Armed with that simple idea, he approached Harriet Ross, the troupe’s associate artistic director; together they lined up some of Chicago’s best dancers and dance companies. The result was the first Dance for Life, held in 1992 at the old Organic Theater on Clark Street. The sold-out benefit netted $18,000, and the proceeds went to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Over the years, the annual event has grown in audience and scale. Last August’s benefit, emceed by WGN Radio’s Dean Richards, featured the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and the River North Chicago Dance Company. It sold out Millennium Park’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance and raised $278,000 for HIV/AIDS care and education and the Dance for Life Fund.

That fund was Ross’s idea. “I thought it was time to help take care of our own,” she says. Money from the fund goes to local dancers, choreographers, and production people afflicted with AIDS. “We don’t let the money just sit and accumulate,” says Ross. “We want to use it up each year, and there’s no red tape. If you need the money, you get the money-in two weeks.”

Dance for Life annually hands out grants to smaller organizations-and for the next few years, a school in Tongabezi, Zambia, will also be a recipient of the group’s generosity. “Now Dance for Life has an African branch,” says Elliott, “and the school is able to hire AIDS speakers who educate children and their teachers.”

A native of downstate Rantoul, Elliott, now 47, moved to Chicago in 1983; after a year of classes at Joseph Holmes, he was offered a contract with the company (which closed in 1995). He currently serves as customer service director of the Lincoln Park Athletic Club and general manager of the Lakeview Athletic Club. A Brooklyn native and Juilliard grad, Ross, 66, moved to the Chicago area with her husband and three sons in 1975.

Two years ago she retired as general manager of the Joffrey Ballet, though she continues to teach workshops and coach dancers privately. While at the Joffrey, she was strategically involved in Robert Altman’s 2003 movie The Company (in which Ross was portrayed by the local actress Barbara Robertson).

Fueled by their success with Dance for Life, Ross and Elliott have already begun planning this year’s event. “It’s very empowering,” says Ross, with a hint of well-earned pride. “People who are living with illness can’t do,” adds Elliott, “so people like me do.”
–Gale Kappe

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