Former ballet dancer Katie McCann celebrates 10th season of Dance In The Parks

Dance in the Parks: Cnidarian Allure choreographed by Thomas Mattingly 2015, in Kennedy Park Photo credit: NehamaShots

Former ballet dancer Katie McCann is a Chicago based performer and dance teacher who founded the inspiring Dance In The Parks, a professional dance company and event that showcases dance in parks across the city.

We spoke to Katie on our podcast show about her journey from dancing with Kentucky Ballet Theater to moving to Chicago and creating Dance In The Parks and teaching dance and how she has brought dance to over 10,000 people in the last 10 years.

Read our interview below or listen to the podcast.

Dance in Parks: Michel Rodriguez Cintra's Celula at Churchill Park. Photo: NehamaShots.
Dance in the Parks: Michel Rodriguez Cintra’s Celula at Churchill Park. Photo: NehamaShots.

Before we talk about dance in the parks, let’s talk about your own journey. When did you start dancing and what made you start in the first place?

I started very young, I think I was four. I don’t remember thinking, ‘Oh I want to do that’. I think I just was one of those kids who couldn’t sit still, and my mom just kept putting me in things.

I remember the gymnastics class that I did not enjoy, I remember going to a lot of things. I think she just wanted to wear me out, so she could have a minute to herself.

I think we went to The Nutcracker” in Chicago – that was the first Nutcracker I ever saw. I don’t remember that moment, but my mom said, ‘Do you want to do that?’, I said, ‘Sure.’ So she put me in classes and I never stopped.

I don’t remember there being a moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I want to do this for a living’, it was just, ‘I do this’.

We moved a lot when I was a kid, so we would go to whatever studio was nearby so that I kept training.

I went to Butler University and majored in Art Administration with a dance concentration and then after that I was in a ballet company in Lexington, Kentucky called Kentucky Ballet Theatre for several years.

When I left there, I went to Chicago as it was kind of our home city when I was growing up and it was one of the cities that I knew had a big dance scene and not just a company. So, I moved here to try and figure out what the next thing was, and I loved this city so much that I ended up staying here forever!

Dance in Parks: Dominos in Owen Scarlett's Upper Hand at Pasteur Park. Photo: NehamaShots.
Dance in Parks: Dominos in Owen Scarlett’s Upper Hand at Pasteur Park. Photo: NehamaShots.

What is the dance scene like in Chicago? 

It is very diverse. The two major ballet companies in the city are the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago which are totally different.

Hubbard Street is very contemporary and under its current leadership is turning more classical. They are doing more of the classical rep as opposed to the more modern ballet that happened when it was founded.

They are both great, but also big and then there is a huge mix of jazz and contemporary and little tiny things that happen in storefronts theatres, very diverse – and there is a lot of room for people to do whatever there thing is.

There is space for it, but it is big which means its spread out and it is a big city in general and it is hard to gather your people. To get the people who live here, who can come on the two days when you do your thing. It is very diverse.

It is not my personal background, but Chicago has an amazing tap history. There is a lot happening here. You follow the contemporary steps and everything that is going on, but you have no idea what is going on with the tap companies in town. But when they do cross, or when they run into each other, I feel everyone is really interested in what everyone else is doing.

They’re like, ‘What are you doing? That is so cool, how are you doing it, where are you doing it?’ There is a friendliness I feel at least in my experience across the board. So, it’s like, ‘You are doing this thing and I am doing this thing, that is amazing, how do we help each other?’

Dance in Parks: "Slinky Dinks" by Taylor Mitchell at Calumet Park 2016 Photo: NehamaShots.
Dance in Parks: “Slinky Dinks” by Taylor Mitchell at Calumet Park 2016 Photo: NehamaShots.

Sounds like a really striving scene in such a huge city with so much to see. So, tell us about why you founded Dance In The Parks and tell us about the company.

When I had danced with the ballet company in Lexington, they had a collaboration with the park district there to do one show every year in August. They built a temporary stage around a tree in a historic park downtown and they did two weekends of an outdoor show. I think it was the only company in town – I think there is more now. So, they threw it together, we did a show outside in pointe shoes on a plywood stage in a million percent humidity in the South in August!

The performance aspect of it was hard because it was hot and sweaty, but I really loved it because (a) being outside – dancers almost never get to do that and (b) the way the audience behaved differently because it was very casual, it was the place they would hang out all the time, the kids could run around or wiggle or talk, you got the dog, you brought the dinner.

They got engaged with it, but the rules were different to when to came to see us in the opera house. It was also more accessible because I think then it was $3 admission, so I think more people could come. It was obvious.

We were in the middle of the park in the middle of the city, people were thinking, ‘What’s that? Let’s go see it.’ I really loved it. When I moved to Chicago (it’s a huge city), but our park district is amazing. 

There’s a park playground in every neighborhood, it’s a part of a block, but at least a place for kids to play. Most of them have larger green spaces, field houses, athletic fields and other things. 

The park district offers classes in whatever anybody wants to teach. It’s a very historically progressive organization for the city. Not only for ‘go work out at the gym’, but language classes, crafting classes, you need a wood shop, go there. There are ways to make people in the city better in what they wanted.

It’s everywhere, north, south, east, west. All over the city, there are big, gorgeous, beautiful tiny ones. And as we already talked about, this huge dance community doing so many things all over the place, but inside the theatre or inside the storefront or hard to find.

At that time, nobody was working in the summer. It was just us, for the spring season and then everybody was off. That is a little different now. Companies are finding more ways to keep things going all year. But nobody was using these assets that we have. So, I thought somebody needs to do this. I was looking around and I was thinking, ‘I have to do this!’

It took me a while. I moved to the city in 2004. Our first actual season was 2009. So, it took me a while to get my feet under me in a new city and being able to pay bills and then to find the people who would help me – we are non-profit, so we must build that and then get through that – choreographers and everybody on-board. There was a lot of begging the first year I remember.

2009 was our first season, four shows scheduled and one got rained out and I think our whole audience was 200 people. And now for year 10, we have reached over 10,000.

We are still tiny, its this one time in the year that we are doing it. We are still tiny. Only two days of rehearsal. We are coming, get the job done and be ready. So, it doesn’t feel big. It doesn’t feel veteran in any way, but 10 seasons…

It is quite an achievement and with 10,000 people coming in contact with Dance In The Parks. Did you think it would grow to this size?

I don’t know, I think we owe a lot to our partnership with the park district. It started with me just getting somebody’s contact information and thinking ‘I can do this thing’. And a woman who is the Director of the Cultural Arts and nature part of the park district, she was like “Seems good, do you need money from us?”. I thought we don’t have any!

They gave us the stage and the place for free. We started it and it worked. People showed up, people enjoyed it. We did a couple of years, a few shows. They gave us a little bit of money every year. It wasn’t much. I had to do a lot of fundraising myself.

But six years ago, our current mayor started an initiative called “Night Out In The Park”. So, there is specific funding for the Chicago park district to do this cultural performance in the summer. So, they got a little bit more money, but also the push to put things in a park in the summer when we can be outside, that helped.

Tell us about the reaction of the audience?

Most of the time the reaction is really great – it is such a novel thing to walk into a park that you are in every day for whatever reason and have this stage set up and people dancing, and even if you wouldn’t want to stay, people do stop and hang out, get off the bike and see what is happening.

Our goal is to make sure that we are producing the most professional version of dance that we can give outside and to make sure if it is your first contact with a  dance experience is excellent.

I feel like there are stereotypes that exist about what ballet is and contemporary dance is, although I think it is changing with the dance that we see on TV, such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars are putting different kinds of dance in front of people, even though that is a more commercial type of dance than what we do.

I think the movement style isn’t quite as new, but we do want it to be an excellent first experience of real choreography trying to make work that says things, with totally trained dancers who are able to perform well, so that if that is your first experience, you are interested in following up which is part of it.

We take our show to 14 different places, the same show every time, but we do try to connect to the existing dance community. We have space in our show where we can plug in new performance partners and we try to keep those for the local area. So, if you want classes for your kid, that is the place. You can go talk to the lady who brought those kids. She will get you in a class.

Or at the end we reach out to other professional companies in the city and ask for ticket donations and at the end of the show in exchange for your survey, we will give you raffle tickets and we raffle off a different pair of tickets to see a show in a regular fall to spring season for someone else’s show.

That’s another great idea!

Yes! Although we can’t really get rid of all of the barriers to getting people into the theatre – transportation is an issue for a lot of the south and west side where we perform, and I can’t necessarily make it free to get to downtown to go to the auditorium theatre – but I can get you tickets.

And although we can’t always take care of childcare, we can’t always take care of transportation, but we try to lower the barriers into the dance community and pointing people to other things that they can do until we come back next summer!

What do people come to you and say about the show?  

That they love it. We almost never get bad feedback. Some of it, there have been several times when we were on the website and people would say you need more African American dancers and I am like, you are correct! I do!

We hire by either rehiring people who have danced with us before or have an audition and it is a very specific hire. We have 22 days of rehearsal if you can’t do all the things that I ask you to do in an audition I can’t use you, because it is too fast and I have to go from that audition.

So for people don’t show up – and we try to reach out to all over the city – please everybody come to the audition! It’s such a very specific skill set that I feel I tied to who shows up and who is right for the event.

I would love to have the most diverse company that I could have! Really rare people all over the city see themselves in what we do, but there is one audition.

For those who come and bring their family and their dog, and picnic like you said before, they must love being up so close to dancers!. 

Yes. I haven’t gotten specifically feedback from Dance In The Parks, but that was one of the things when I was in Kentucky, friends of mine who would come to the show would be like, ‘It was kind of cool to see sit over there and do crunches while you weren’t dancing.’ I was like, ‘Was that the best part of the show? I feel like you got ripped off money wise because there were other really great things happening you should have been paying attention to!’

But it’s not uncommon for kids to get up super close to the stage and dance with us. We try to keep them away from the stage for safety reasons, but they would put elbows up and my feet are swinging by their face, but they don’t care. Little ones would try to make a run for the stage before mom catches them! We get at least two videos a year of a small child trying to join us.

It is cute, but also it’s great as unless you took Dance In The Parks to their local park, they may not actually get this opportunity to see professional dancers and to be inspired.

Yes. And I think there are huge parts of the population where dance is not even a thing they know about.

And although that seems so foreign to me – of course, this is my whole entire life, this is what I do every day – there is an entire population that is not a form of entertainment they would think about, much or less as a career path, which again maybe ill-advised for some.

You are also a dance teacher and a lot of your students have gone on to other prestigious college programs, or a professional career ballet, contemporary and other commercial dance opportunities within the industry. What do you look for in class or what is your philosophy or approach when you are teaching?

I specifically teach ballet and all ballet things related, even though the company is really contemporary, what I generally teach is classical. I feel that is a more limited career path. I mean if you can do it, if you were born with the genes and the work ethic and all the things and you can just do ballet as your career, I am here to help. Let’s do it.

But, I would say for a majority of the people that I teach, maybe a ballet career isn’t a thing, but the dance world is huge, there is room for you. You just have to be willing to do all the things until you figure out where your spot is that you can do the thing.

In a ballet class expectations are high. The technique must be met, but safely. It’s physically important for everyone to safely be able to do all the things to the ability that they can do it. I have many students who have gone on to dance careers, most of them aren’t going to and don’t even want to do ballet. They will tell you, I am going to be an engineer. I am like, ‘Great, still straighten that knee for me!’

So, we’ve got to be safe about it and we have to still continue to love it, but you can learn all the other things, you are really strong and you can do things that are hard. Whether that’s mentally, physically or spiritually. All of those things come into the studio with you.

When you’re an engineer, you have to work on these problems. You can, now that you can figure out the steps and the things that you have to do on the way and it is going to be hard and also, to know you’re going to be fine.

There is a lot of that in the classroom – where I am also requiring high levels of technique. That is why we are here, we are are going to do the ballet and do the best ballet we can. Then we go to jazz and I poke my head in and if I see you messing around, I am also going to give you the look!

We do the best jazz. I think that bleeds over into the company. I teach company class two days a week. My rehearsal director also teaches company class two days a week, she does other shifts, contemporary, modern, jazz – but in the rehearsal studio, the expectation is that you know what you are doing, you have reviewed what needed to happen from the last time, we are ready to go.

I am here to help you, I am not here to baby you through all this. And that is the reason that we can put a show together in 22 days of rehearsal. Everybody has to be on board for this and no messing around. We had a great time, but the culture in the room is that we are going to do this well, but we have to do it quickly, so you need to get on the ball, I am here to help.

What sort of dancers come to the audition for Dance In The Parks and what sort of dancers end up performing?

It is usually the very strong contemporary dancers. Everybody had got their training in traditional ballet, modern, jazz etc. Chicago is just full of very good contemporary dancers, that is where our choreographers are. Even though each choreographer has their own little take or style and it seems that what we all do is different, but it generally is modern and contemporary based.

I need people who can pick that up quickly and also improvise because a lot of the choreographers have to incorporate and use the dancers’ brain in the creation of the movement. That happens at the audition as well.

We throw them little creation tests to see if they can roll with it. It is a lot. We start with ballet, some reps from the previous year to see if they can pick up. I probably shouldn’t give my secret away….we do two reps.

One is to just let you show me that you are a contemporary dancer after everyone has been terrified of the ballet class. It’s fine. Then the next one is usually too fast and we don’t give them enough time to learn it and then make them do it, because it does happen in our performances that things don’t go according to plan and I need to see you roll with the punches when it is not going well. 

So we stress them out on purpose, which I don’t tell them when we are there and now I am giving up my secret, we purposely don’t let them get comfortable! 

In the end, we do an improv thing where you make up a phrase and then you have to figure it out and make these phrases work together and then we mix it all up just to see how their brains work.

I love that. It’s so challenging, but I love how you talk about the brain of the dancer. It is not just about the body and the movement…

It can’t be, it’s so boring when it is just about my legs and feet doing this thing. I feel like the most interesting thing I watch is just the technique, so that I can see what they are thinking about when they do it and that I am sure it’s a very specific teacher thing.

I can watch a body and tell what they are thinking about while they are doing it. That is what I find so interesting. It’s like the math that is happening that makes this beautiful thing that you look at, as opposed to just ‘her leg is higher’.

It sounds beautiful and intelligent and it sounds sort of holistic and complete. Just like you said, not just who has the highest leg or the greatest turnout or who can recreate a piece of rep that people know, but actually how do they respond and how do they react and who are they as people and how does that create their movement and their performance.  

It is a hard thing from a teaching point of view. I need you to get your technique together, I need you to stand in the class and think about all the physical things that you have to do so that your body will train itself to do the things that you’re going to be asked to do if you’re a professional.

Then it requires turning yourself off to just do the mechanics of it which doesn’t make it interesting later, so there has to be that point when they start getting solid and not falling over. You have to be the person in the room. I need you to talk to me when I ask you a question, and I need you to ask me the questions.

Sometimes if I am a guest somewhere, that ‘whole button up, you respect, don’t talk’, it takes me classes and classes, you have to answer my question, it wasn’t rhetorical, I need you to open your mouth and talk to me because I need to know you are here and thinking and not just staring at me and pretending to absorb the words that I am saying. I need you to be here.

I think in some of my upper senior dance classes, we do get a little chatty, but I need you to ask the questions. If you don’t understand, I need you to ask because I can’t tell. I can tell that you don’t know what you are doing, but don’t know if you are confused about how or if you are just having a rough day.

It’s all fine, but I need you to ask me what you need, so that maybe later where someone is like, ‘I need you to do a dance about an apple on a pancake’, they are like ‘What? Can you give me more direction?’

And that feels stupid. Just be like, ‘I am missing information, somebody gives me more information’ and be able to stand up as a human being and not just shut up and be a dancer. It’s appropriate in some situations – not most situations that I have worked in.

I remember my ballet classes, there certainly wasn’t any talking when I was growing up.

Yes. And the chit-chat amongst the students, I’m not into it. But, I do need the relationship between each one of them, I need to know you are here as a person and if you’re having a bad day, okay, but let’s establish that.

It’s not that you are lazy, sometimes they look the same, just let me know, it’s cool, let’s do it if you’re having a bad day then probably you’re already a win for showing up, so we will talk tomorrow. You got to be people first, even though you do have to turn out more and pointe your foot. It’s a hard mix.

I think also it asks a lot of a person, I think to be physically and emotionally and intellectually present and engaged and then to be able to articulate it and to be able to question, there is also a freedom and empowering sense that you give to the young students, it feels very empowering and limitless almost.

I don’t think a lot of them are very good at it for a very long time, but they have classes for it, you practice, you’re not here to be good, you are there to get better. So I am going to just keep picking those shy 11-year olds to be like, what are you missing? I can tell what it is, but you need to figure it out.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, maybe they won’t all grow up to be professionals, but shouldn’t we raise the professionals we want to work with. I didn’t work in an environment where you need to just shut up and learn the steps, nobody likes working that way.

It is very frustrating to just do the steps, do it the way I said and then you are the obnoxious one to ask the question. I would rather raise dancers who expect people to treat them like people so that maybe the environment changes.

I am not asking for anyone to baby them – you need to come in, have yourself together and be ready to go, but we are all people, it is a job, you are paying me to do my job, I don’t want to actually stand here and listen to you yell at me. How about we exchange information so that I am not frustrating you. That seems like more of a job that I would like to do. How lucky are we to dance – that shouldn’t be the only thing, you are so lucky to do this.

Things are changing within the dance industry…

I never had really any horrible experiences at all, I had a lot of while I was working. We are in this together – while people would get frustrated, it was really directed at somebody, we have all heard the world stories and there is still misbehavior happening in the news. Why don’t we just raise our dancers to expect more of themselves and therefore those around them?

Talking of high standards, it’s your 10th season of Dance In The Parks, what are you doing extra special to celebrate this monumental moment for you?

I don’t know that it’s monumental, I don’t feel like we have reached the stage of monumental at the size that we have. I would say the performances we are having, we haven’t announced it yet, we are having a reunion. I am trying to get all our alumni from over the last 10 years to at least come to a show and then have a little event afterward so that we can catch up.

I feel like it is over a 100 people that we have hired in 10 years to make things, and test things and all of that. We commissioned a finale last year that was supposed to do what it is going to do this year, but the scheduling didn’t work out to fulfill the two parts of it.

We have some returning choreographer, Peter Carpenter, he always creates thoughtful, if not overly political, really thoughtful pieces of choreography. He hasn’t been able to work with us for several years because he is so busy. It’s so nice to have him back.

I tried to get a bunch of returning people, but some of our people who have been longtime Chicago artists, have moved on to other jobs out of the city. So its hard to get them to come back, but I am so proud that we are at a point were choreographers come to me when I used to have to beg people, ‘please do this thing I swear it will be good’ – but now people are so interested, its such a cool project, they say ‘if you need anybody for next year please keep me in mind’.

I get to pick from all these amazing talents who are interested in being a part of it, which is amazing because there are reasons why it is not an easy job. You have to work really fast, you got to have a plan, most of them don’t know who the dancers are before they walk in the room. You can’t have a light, or blackout or a wing. I am sorry!

What do the next 10 years look like?

I don’t know how big we can get. I would love to do a longer summer season – I don’t know that I can get the dancers. They all have contracts that they are on, so I can’t get them until they are done. We’ve g got to have some rehearsal time, so maybe we could do things through July and August and do more of them, but that also depends on the park schedule which is so crazy that they might not actually be able to squeeze us into more things because we used their stage.

I would love to try and get out of the city and in the counties and suburban park districts, but that is a budgetarily exponential job because we don’t have a stage, so we would have to rent one and rent people to set it up and travel farther.

It’s not that it couldn’t be done, but it is a big leap monetarily for us to be ready to do it. I would love to keep creeping away from the city center. All of the professional dance is in the city.

There are maybe one or two performance venues in the nearby suburbs that are frequently used for dance. So you have to come into the city to see whatever is happening there in the city.

It would be nice to reach out there, there is no shortage of really good new performers that we could pull in, but it is a matter if each suburban city – like getting to their park district – where can we do it and move the stage and hire people is a big scale up.

Get involved, get out into your local park and see Dance In The Parks in Chicago, check out where and where here.

You can also support Dance In The Parks by donating money. And if you’re a dancer, you now know Katie’s audition secrets, so get along to the next audition!