Chicago is famous for its culturally diverse communities, which sustain and preserve ethnic traditions. Since the mid-nineteenth century immigrants have found their way to the American heartland in regular waves. First came the Irish, followed closely by Germans, British, Scandinavians, and other Europeans. They were followed by Chinese immigrants, displaced persons from Eastern and Central Europe, Mexicans and Central Americans, and refugees fleeing wars in Asia. By the late 20th century just about any ethnic group you could name had a presence in the city.
A network of churches, settlement houses, and social clubs arose to support Chicago’s immigrant communities, and preserve the cultural heritage particular to each. The impact of these social organizations can still be seen on Chicago’s folk dance scene. The Polonia Ensemble, for example, is the folk dance arm of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, whose headquarters at Milwaukee Avenue and Augusta Boulevard dates back to 1913. Younger organizations dedicated to cultural preservation include the Ukrainian Cultural Center, home to the Hromovytsia Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, and the Irish American Heritage Center, where several Irish dance schools practice and perform, including the Spriorad Damhsa performance group and Mark Howard’s Trinity Academy of Irish Dance.
Newer waves of immigrants—most of them non-European—have tapped their folk traditions to create distinctive performance troupes. One of the best-known is Muntu Dance Theatre. Founded in 1972, Muntu fuses traditional and contemporary African dance, drumming, and folklore with professional-level technique and high production values to create performances that have proved wildly popular across Chicago (until she moved to the White House, Michelle Obama sat on Muntu’s board). Under the artistic direction of P. Amanieya Payne for more than 20 years, the troupe espouses a holistic vision of arts education. Company members consider themselves both performers and teachers; to Muntu, accurately conveying the cultural and historical significance of each work is as important as delivering a viscerally thrilling show.
Natya Dance Theatre, a classical Indian dance company, shares this commitment to performance excellence and cultural preservation. The company uses the ancient tradition of Bharata Natyam, India’s intricately expressive—and rigorous—dance form, to communicate India’s rich heritage of myth and folklore. Natya Dance Theater also seeks to make this seemingly distant art form relevant to contemporary audiences through cross-disciplinary endeavors such as Sita Ram, the company’s 2006 musical adaptation of the Ramayana, the epic lyric poem of Hindu scripture, presented in collaboration with Lookingglass Theater Company and the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Some of the most dominant dance traditions in Chicago derive from the city’s broad and diverse Latino community. Home to one of the largest Mexican populations in the U.S., Chicago has a vibrant network of social dance venues and schools where salsa, mambo, and merengue are alive and well. But so are the folk dance traditions of Mexico, from the storied Mexican Hat Dance to the indigenous Mayan rituals of Chiapas, thanks to the efforts of the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago. The company celebrates the rich cultural history of Mexico from pre-Colombian times through its colonial era and the 1910 revolution. The MFDC offers free dance training to children and teenagers, and draws its company members from their ranks.
Across town the celebrated Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, the longtime company-in-residence at Northeastern Illinois University, showcases the Ibero-Hispanic experience through a blend of Spanish ballet, folklore, and the traditional arts of flamenco. The company’s annual American Spanish Dance Festival draws an international array of guest artists to perform, teach master classes, and lead workshops.
Drawing from this wealth of tradition, Luna Negra Dance Theater has created an utterly modern dance idiom. Founded in 1999 by Eduardo Vilaro, Luna Negra has as its mission the simultaneous respect for Latino cultural history and the articulation of a vibrant, modern Latino identity reflecting the sweeping cultural changes the community has undergone in recent years. Already prominent in the city’s dance scene, Luna Negra provides emerging Latino choreographers with the chance to develop and express their own distinctly 21st-century aesthetics.
Folk and ethnic dance remain a vibrant part of Chicago’s dance community, continuing and renewing cultural traditions and at the same time nurturing creative expression through movement.