Outdoor cultural fun in Chicago: Dance, theater, movies, zoos and more

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The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.

Summer isn’t all about eating and drinking and listening to music outside (though, let’s admit it, that’s all pretty fantastic).

Every once in a while it’s nice to elevate our thinking. Dare we say, we might even get a little culture — and education — along the way.

Here are some ways to do that in the fresh air:

Cut a rug

Chicago SummerDance will once again bring us what’s billed as the largest annual outdoor live music and dancing series in the United States.

The series is your chance to take to the dance floor to live music in the beautiful environment of Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden, 601 S. Michigan Ave.

Hundreds dance salsa as Orquesta El Macabeo performs during Chicago SummerDance, part of Taste of Chicago in Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden on Saturday night, July 8, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Hundreds dance salsa as Orquesta El Macabeo performs during Chicago SummerDance, part of Taste of Chicago in Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden on Saturday night, July 8, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Got two left feet? Doesn’t matter: SummerDance features free one-hour dance lessons followed by live music and dancing (so you can bust your newfound move).

Everything from salsa, swing, cha-cha and more is on the dance card as the city celebrates music and dance from around the world, all to the sounds of 40 live bands and DJs.

This year’s installment runs Thursday-Sundays from June 28 to Aug. 24 at Grant Park. If you can’t make it Downtown, SummerDance in the Parks will be held on Wednesdays in parks across the city from July 11 to Aug. 22. Other events are planned at various locations, including the SummerDance Celebration Aug. 25 at Millennium Park. Check out chicagosummerdance.org for details.

See a play

Oak Park Festival Theatre boasts the Midwest’s oldest Equity classical outdoor theater. It’s at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Avenue in Oak Park. This year’s schedule includes “You Can’t Take It With You” from June 14 to July 22 and “The African Company Presents Richard III” from July 28 to Sept. 1. So load up a picnic basket and a cooler, grab a folding chair and Fido (yes, dogs are welcome …) and enjoy professional theater under the stars. oakparkfestival.com

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) weighs the cost of his ambition, shadowed by the spirits of the Weird Sisters in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Macbeth.” | Liz Lauren

Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) weighs the cost of his ambition, shadowed by the spirits of the Weird Sisters, in a recent Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Macbeth.” | Liz Lauren

Meanwhile, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater makes it an annual point to leave its home base at Navy Pier and head out into the neighborhoods to put on productions at parks around the city. Since the Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks program started six years ago, more than 100,000 people have been treated to a performance of the Bard’s works in their communities. This year’s production is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Find more details chicagoshakes.com.

If your taste in theater leans more toward musicals, check out Broadway In Chicago’s free Summer Concert at 6:15 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St., in Millennium Park. This year’s show show will feature songs from “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Miss Saigon,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and more. BroadwayInChicago.com

And yes, we know it’s not technically outside, but it’s hard to enjoy a cultural experience AND summer in Chicago more than a visit to Theater on the Lake. The park district venue off Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton Avenue and allows theatergoers to take in a production while enjoying everything the lakefront has to offer. The facility just unveiled the product of a facelift last year that allowed it to be used year-round, but we’re more interested in the outdoor dining and drinking improvements that make it perfect for a pre- or post-play visit. Watch theateronthelake.com for updates on this year’s schedule.

How ‘bout a flick?

The Movies in the Parks series is one of the Park District’s most popular celebrations, enticing people from every corner of the city to head over to their neighborhood park for some big-screen entertainment. Movies start around dusk, and audience members are encouraged to bring blankets or chairs and some snacks (but no alcohol) … and some bug spray of course. Check chicagoparkdistrict.com/events/movies-parks for a comprehensive schedule.

Likewise, Millennium Park hosts its own movie series at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. This year’s series runs on Tuesdays June 5 to Aug. 24 and is once again set to highlight films celebrating all genres and cultures. For a full schedule visit millenniumpark.org.

Have some fun under the big top

You think your family’s life is a circus? You should meet the Jenkins family.

Mom and Dad Julie and Jeffrey Jenkins, along with their kids Samantha Rae and Maxwell — and their two rescue pitbulls Junebug and Rosie — are all professional circus performers.

The best part? Every year they take their circus on tour to parks across the city. The shows are truly something to behold, especially when you consider they’ve raised almost $1 million for Chicago’s parks in about a decade of twirling, juggling and tumbling. Check out midnightcircus.net for more information and a heads up on when the Midnight Circus in the Parks will be coming to your ‘hood.

Stop and smell the roses

Maybe your lawn isn’t as brown and scorched from snow melt as ours is right now, but with meteorological spring in full effect, we can’t help but long for the flora and fauna to bloom.

The best part is … we don’t have to. There are plenty of places to check out Mother Nature’s best calling cards, no matter what she’s decided to deliver us that day.

So even if it’s a rainy and dreary summer day, make a path for some of the verdant gardens in our city in a garden:

Morton Arboretum, mortonarb.org

Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org

Garfield Park Conservatory, garfieldconservatory.org

Lincoln Park Conservatory, chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/lincoln-park-conservatory

Walk on the wild side

The Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo always have been leaders in education and conservation, and they give us the opportunity for up-close encounters with magnificent species most of us would never have met otherwise. Plus, how lucky are we to be able to meet something as cute as a red panda or rockhopper penguin? The best part is neither zoo takes a summer vacation (or much of a winter one, actually) so make a point of revisiting the glory days of the field trips of your youth and hit the zoo: czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Home and lpzoo.org.

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