In May 2010, Keith Elliott took a job at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts. Longtime director and master teacher Larry Long had recently passed away, the Ruth Page endowments had changed and much of the organization was in shambles. Elliott was brought on with no real job description, other than to help get "The Page" back in order. He quickly got to work, taking over managing the theater, which was dirty, underutilized and outdated. Thinking outside the box is how Elliott got the space back in order, plus a number of grant initiates affording him some updated equipment. The space is now clean, organized, and ( most importantly ) booked, nearly every weekend through 2016. "We are a destination now," he said in a recent conversation with Windy City Times. Essentially, this is what Keith Elliott does, and has been doing for nearly 30 years.
In the summer of 1990, Keith Elliott the dancer used a layoff from Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater to brainstorm about a dance show to benefit organizations committed to HIV/ AIDS. "I didn't want to sit around over the summer," he said. With the help of co-founder Todd Keich, the show opened the follow year to soldout audiences, and now, 23 years later, Dance for Life remains one of the most successful events of its kind. More than just a one-night dance gala for HIV/AIDS awareness, Dance for Life has initiated, hosted and supported numerous additional events throughout the years, including "Chicago Takes Off," a Burlesque show now called "The Tease," which premiered March 1. "It's Dance for Life with less clothing!" Elliott said. Additional satellite programs are getting youth involved in philanthropy. The recent Next Generation at Wheeling High School is one such example, raising $16,000 in one day. It was a particularly special event, marking not only the widespread impact of the movement, but also the last Dance for Life event of Elliott's tenure in Chicago.
A friend and colleague pitched the idea to him last November to open a nightclub in Scottsdale, Ariz. Hesitant at first, Elliott eventually decided to take a leap of faith and bring his entrepreneurial spirit and talent for performing arts management and philanthropy to a new city. "What other time am I going to do this? I might as well! Chicago has afforded me so many amazing opportunities to be active in the community. I was able to do so much; I now want to continue that somewhere else as well. The theater community is really big [in Scottsdale]; there's just nowhere for them to perform."
What will happen to Dance for Life? "I'm still staying connected," said Elliott, and the philanthropic empire that has raised millions of dollars for AIDS-service organizations is strong. General Manager Anthony Guerrero will take on many of Elliott's former responsibilities. "I just hope one day we don't have to do it," said Elliott. In the meantime, he has every confidence that he's leaving the organization in good hands.
Surely a man with such a talent for non-profit management and philanthropy in the arts has scores of degrees in arts management. Thirty years after the fact, Elliott applied old credits from an unfinished education degree, his life experience and a few recent algebra courses to the University Without Walls program at Northeastern Illinois University, where he just graduated with a BA in arts management. He claims to have learned organization through his dad, volunteerism through his mom, and the rest through careful observation of what others were doing. Upon arriving in Chicago many years ago, he got involved early and often in causes about which he is passionate. "I guess I was just wide-eyed enough to see what the pieces were," he said. The degree is likely to come in handy as Elliott embarks on the next phase of his life: opening a cabaret club and events space in Scottsdale. The degree also gives him the chops to back up his "street cred."
As he rides his motorcycle off into the Arizona sunset, what does Keith Elliott want Windy City Times readers to know? "Thank them all, for one! Continue to stay involved and committed to things you feel are important. ... The effect is big by staying involved. So stay the course, baby!"
Save the date: Dance for Life Chicago 2014 will be Saturday, Aug. 16, including appearances by local dance companies Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet and River North Dance Chicago. The program will feature world premieres by Randy Duncan and Harrison McEldowney & Jeremy Plummer. Gala reception is 5 p.m. at the Hilton Chicago Grand Ballroom, with 8 p.m. performance at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Look for ticket information this May.