Chicago youth group performs at sixth annual Chicago Dancing Festival.

After School Matters hip-hop ensemble highlights this year’s lineup.

Photograph: Courtesy of After School Matters
Members of the Hip-Hip Culture Dance Ensemble.

A sea of bodies in purple shirts dances to the sonic beats of hip-hop in the third-floor rehearsal studios of Gallery 37 on Randolph Street. With every heavy squeak of high-top sneakers, and every pop and lock of limbs, the 40-plus high-school students of Hip-Hop Culture Dance Ensemble—a performance troupe of Chicago’s After School Matters outreach program—show why they will open and close one of the year’s most anticipated dance events.

The Chicago Dancing Festival marks its sixth anniversary Monday 20 through Saturday 25. Cofounders Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke continue to broaden the scope of the annual dance bonanza with a wide range of performers: This year’s lineup features members of the San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as hometown favorites Hubbard Street and Joffrey. The sleeper hit in 2012, however, might be the talents of HHCDE, set to choreography from Nicholas Leichter, founder and artistic director of the New York–based Nicholas Leichter Dance company.

Despite a modest eight-minute routine, the multitude of bodies carefully interweaving through one another illustrates the amateur group’s determination to dance with the stars, and to do it well. You’re not likely to see a professional company present more than 40 performers onstage at any one time.

The decision to include a youth group, Lubovitch says, grew from the notion of an “all-Chicago program—a way to incorporate young dancers and the idea of a whole city dancing,” not just dance companies.

“We were like, wait a minute, you guys are on the bill with New York City Ballet, Hubbard Street, Martha Graham,” HHCDE program director Tanji Harper says. “[The students] have never experienced that. There’re going to be monitors up and the lighting, and the floor that’s wood-sprung. All of that is next level.”

The CDF has become one of the city’s most fan-friendly dance programs, offering all events to the public for free. As Lubovitch notes, the fest always aims to cultivate a wider audience, which means opening the doors to a diverse range of performers. Not since its inception has the festival featured a youth group on one of the main stages, much less one that will bookend the weeklong series. For students of After School Matters, which has promoted extracurricular activities for high-schoolers in and around Chicago since 1991, the opportunity may prove life-changing. Ranging between 14 and 18 years old, the students will find themselves at a fest that, in recent years, has drawn more than 10,000 audience members annually.

“[This] doesn’t happen for a 14-year-old unless you’re some prodigy from Juilliard,” Harper says. “It’s not necessarily a kid from Chicago who’s from the South Side.”

“The teens are beyond beside themselves,” After School Matters regional director Angelina Amankwa says. During our conversation, Amankwa corrects herself: “I keep referring to them as kids, but I mean to say teens,” she notes, referencing their maturity.

“These young people are tomorrow’s artists and audience members,” Lubovitch says, “and cultivating their interests is a very important part of how to keep the arts growing in Chicago, particularly the dancing arts.”

The Chicago Dancing Festival takes place Monday 20 through Saturday 25 at various venues throughout the city. For details, go to chicagodancingfestival.com.

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