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Dance Divas: fancy footwork for a good cause

At the official kick-off party for Dance For Life, performers put their drag and dance skills on campy display to assist artists in need

Jeremy Plummer (seated center) and Ben Wardell (second from right) perform at Dance Divas 2018.
Jeremy Plummer (seated center) and Ben Wardell (second from right) perform at Dance Divas 2018.
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

After dancer and competitive diver Jeremy Plummer snapped his neck in a 2005 cliff-diving accident, doctors told him the C5 spinal cord injury could leave the twentysomething a paraplegic with little or no feeling below the shoulders.

When Plummer takes the Baton Show Lounge stage August 4 and 5 for the Dance Divas’ “Bright Lights, Big Cities” production, he’ll be celebrating his recovery — and his life as dancer — while raising money for dancers dealing with their own potentially catastrophic health setbacks. Oh, and one more thing. Plummer will be doing it in heels. Sometimes backwards.

Plummer describes “Bright Lights” as a campy, glitzy, amuse bouche to the multi-company, multi-genre main course: the Aug. 17 Dance For Life high-glam dance concert/fundraiser at the Auditorium Theatre. That high-glam, musical drag/dance extravaganza embodies the very enthusiasm Plummer and dozens of other artists convey in “Bright Lights,” which will be held at the Baton’s new Sheridan Park space at 4713 N. Broadway. Proceeds from both events go to the Dancers Fund, which allocates resources to dance professionals dealing with health issues.

“I’d never felt pain like I did when I woke up from spinal surgery,” Plummer said. “I had danced with injuries of course, all dancers do. But this was so bad it was like I literally didn’t want to move. A few weeks later, I remember making it down the hospital hallway and thinking, OK, I can do that, I can keep trying. And, I can give back.

“As dancers, we’re constantly being told we’re too this, not enough that, too fat or too old — to survive in this business you have to develop a thick skin. You learn to push through, or you give in. I had to learn to push through early,” he said.

Per the driving ethos of Dance Divas, one pushes through with one’s waist cinched, teeth bleached, tights stoned, hair teased and face painted for the gods.

Choreographed this year by artistic directors Plummer and Harrison McEldowney, the Dance Divas were founded in 1996 by Tony Savino, who cast drag queens as famous dancing divas and donated ticket proceeds from their show to the Dancers Fund. To date, Dance for Life and Dance Divas have contributed roughly $6 million to the Dancers Fund from their respective performances.

Which real-life divas will be portrayed by this year’s crew of Dance Divas is a secret well-guarded by Plummer — to some degree. “We may or may not be going to the Moulin Rouge,” he said of the famed Parisian nightclub. A Las Vegas section, he added, may or may not include “pop music headliners.”

There is also a New York City section, starring Chicago Tap Theater member Isaac Stauffer as Peggy Sawyer, the fictional unknown-Allentown-hoofer-turned-Broadway-star in the musical “42nd Street.”

Isaac Stauffer (center) performs with the cast of Dance Divas 2018.
Isaac Stauffer (center) performs with the cast of Dance Divas 2018 at Baton.
Philamonjar Photo

This is Stauffer’s third outing as a Diva, following turns as Debbie Reynolds and Patti LuPone in previous shows. “It’s two nights of enjoyment and smiles fun and joy and getting to spend time with your dance family. And you’re raising money and awareness,” he said.

“Peggy’s story is one I relate to,” Stauffer added. “I’m from an Iowa farm. Cows, pigs and beans. Great place to grow up, but not somewhere I wanted to spend my life. I needed to come to Chicago.”

Chicago dancer Benjamin Holliday Wardell (Hubbard Street, Lucky Plush Productions, founder of the Cambrians) is making his rookie appearance with Dance Divas. He signed on to perform “Turkey Lurkey Time” from “Promises, Promises” (sung by Broadway divas including Kristen Chenoweth, Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie over the years) after a lifetime of facing down his own health challenges.

When he was five, Wardell went through the windshield in a car accident, which left his face scarred. Make-up artists taught him to minimize the scarring. Dance helped him to celebrate his distinctively “asymmetrical” eyes without powder and concealer.

“Dance and drag have transformative powers,” Wardell said. “I’m an introverted person who can be more open and uninhibited on stage through dance. Drag takes that one step further. This idea that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag? That is so true. Drag points directly to social edifice and its performative aspects. I mean, we all start performing the moment we walk out of our bedrooms in the morning, right?” he said.

Tickets for Dance For Life range from $15-$75 (performance only) and $300-$650 (performance and gala). More info is at http://chicagodancersunited.org/dance-for-life-2019/

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.