BY MARY GOFEN
Behind the Scenes
Professional dancers and amateur contestants gathered in the lobby of the Park West to make their grand entrance into the historic theater for the 11th annual “Dancing with the Giordano Stars.”
More than 450 people waited inside.
Some of the performers smoothed their hair, one wiped his brow, and another stretched her leg and back muscles. They all checked and re-checked their costumes from head to toe. At dress rehearsal the night before, one contestant’s shoe strap broke, requiring a glue repair. No one wanted a repeat of that tonight.
Finally the music began. As the first notes of “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” played, the dancers stood a little taller—displaying elegance, athleticism, and glow—before gliding in to the theater.
Every fall, Dancing with the Giordano Stars matches company dancers with the who’s who of Chicago’s social, civic, and business communities. A dozen pairs competed this year in two categories, the compulsory fox trot and a dance of choice. Celebrity judges awarded prizes for Best Male Dancer, Best Female Dancer, and Honorable Mentions. Funds raised benefit the dance company and its educational outreach efforts.
“We are committed to providing beauty, music, and magic to the community,” says Artistic Director, Nan Giordano. The company’s outreach program sends company dancers into three Chicago public schools to teach dance, science, and health. “Many of these students have never been downtown, much less to the Harris Theater…. We feel like we have a place in their world,” she said.
This year’s event raised more than $250,000, far exceeding the goal of the Giordano Dance Company (GDC). Aside from the financial success of the evening, Nan shared, “It was the pure joy and positive energy of the evening that radiated through everyone, from competitor to judge to audience member, that I think I will remember most.”
Male contestants and their GDC partners were Chris D’hondt, Senior Managing Director of Accenture (with Ashley Downs); Peter Roberts, Consultant at Spencer Stuart (with Katie Rafferty); Keith Scott, Tennis Professional at East Bank Club (with Rachael Berube); Mario Sullivan, Partner at Johnson & Sullivan Ltd. (with Natasha Overturff Denny); and Mark Kutek, President of ESM Products LLC (with Linnea Stureson).
Female contestants and their GDC dance partners were Hope Alexander, Vice President of Business Development at BE&K Building Group (with Ryan Galloway); Jackie Bucksbaum, philanthropist and life learner (with Devin Buchanan); Anne Burke, Illinois Supreme Court Justice (with Zachary Heller); Chaz Ebert, CEO of Ebert Digital, LLC (with Adam Houston); Pat Manus, Stylist at Carlisle-Etcetera (with Cesar Salinas); Jeanne Montana, Owner or Your Loss Your Gain Weight Loss Center (with Jacob Frazier); and Elise Paschen, poet and editor (with Joshua Blake Carter).
The celebrity judges were awed by the performances. “It’s really difficult to choose because everyone brings such energy and passion and works so hard,” said WFLD’s Corey McPherrin. “This far exceeded my expectations!”
Awards went to Pat Manus as the Best Female Dancer and Mark Kutek as the Best Male Dancer. Honorable mentions were given to Jackie Bucksbaum (Most Committed), Chris D’hondt and Mario Sullivan (tie, Most Enthusiastic), and Anne Burke (Best Style).
Giordano wore a huge smile at the end of the evening. “It’s magical for me to see our dancers build close ties with [the contestants] over the years. The bonds that develop continue long past the ‘Stars’ competition,” she said. “We love sharing our positive energy and passion. I think it’s a feeling that other people don’t often get to experience.”
The dance company’s next event is its fall engagement at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Friday, October 28 and Saturday, October 29. The performance will feature the world premiere of a new company work by Peter Chu, plus other works from the company’s repertoire.
Onstage with Elise Paschen
For Elise Paschen, poet and professor, “Dancing with the Giordano Stars” brought positive energy, individual acts of kindness, and expansive support—followed by a revelation.
The project kicked off in January with a lively reception at which the “Stars” contestants and Giordano company dancers first met each other. A positive vibe infused the room. “Our organization bases off very good energy,” Nan Giordano explains. “[The contestants] feel this welcoming energy and it hooks them!”
Weeks later, each of the 12 contestants was matched with a professional dancer and in August, each pair began separate rehearsals. Elise was matched with Joshua Blake Carter, who is in his seventh season with the dance company, and the pair immediately hit it off in rehearsals.
“Here we all were, in August and September, leading up to the event,” she says. “And it’s kind of an isolating experience, each pair in our own studios working away. But when we finally came together for dress rehearsal and the show, what I loved was discovering all the other dancers. And I suddenly had this big revelation of being part of this big Giordano family, of people coming together for the cause. Each couple performed so exquisitely, and everyone supported each other and cheered each other, and it became a team enterprise.”
Elise’s “Stars” experience begins and ends with family, fellowship, and friends. Her husband, Stuart Brainerd, and their children, Alexandra and Stephen (who attend the Francis W. Parker School), were there for her from beginning to end. Dozens of friends and other family members also offered support and attended the event. And the night before the performance, Elise was thrilled to learn that her best friend from high school, the actress Daryl Hannah, had flown in from Colorado to surprise and support her.
In fact, it was Daryl and Daryl’s mother, Susan Wexler Mazzoni, who got Elise involved with “Stars.” Last year, Elise attended the event to support Sue, a contestant and Honorable Mention award winner. Elise found the experience so exhilarating that, when asked, she agreed to join the contest this year.
Elise, Daryl, and Sue have shared many dance experiences together over the years. Some of Elise’s favorite dance memories are from a trip she took in high school with Sue, Daryl, and their family to the South of France. Each night the 16-year-old girls ventured out to a local club, the Voom Voom, where the French boys taught them a new dance called “Le Roc,” the French version of the Swing. “I love the Swing,” Elise says with a wide smile. “It’s so much fun.”
When Elise signed up for “Stars,” she had never before danced on stage. Although she grew up in the world of dance—her mother was the prima ballerina Maria Tallchief—Elise never really enjoyed ballet lessons. As she grew older, she found artistic outlets in less formal dancing (such as at clubs with Daryl) and high school acting and—later and on a grander scale—through poetry. Most of her creative energies now go into writing and teaching. A recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, she has a new book coming out this spring titled The Nightlife. In addition, her poem “Lear’s Wife” appears in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine.
She found the prospect of dancing on stage both daunting and thrilling—she and Josh decided to approach every aspect of the project, including themes, music, choreography, and costumes with as much fun and lightness as possible. After Josh proposed imitating the famous Uma Thurman dance in the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, Elise thought it would be a fun tie-in with Daryl’s work with the same filmmaker of the Kill Bill movies.
Elise embraced the role of Uma Thurman’s character, Mia Wallace, and friends helped Elise nail the iconic look: black bob wig (from Heads & Threads, combed and secured by costume designer and wardrobe stylist Tiger Lily, who dressed fellow “Stars” contestant Chaz Ebert), black capri pants (with sequins, found at Forever 21 by Elise’s friend Lynn Litwin), and a copy of Uma Thurman’s top, a white blouse with attitude (from Perfekcija: The Home of the Perfect White Shirt.) Shipped from London, the blouse almost didn’t make it in time for the show because of a delay in customs. Josh’s costume featured the same bolo tie worn by John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega.
Performance night brought nerves, but Elise found that the presence of her family and friends, including Daryl and Sue, along with their shared history of dance, gave her the lift and confidence she needed to take the stage. “It was this whole amazing support system, and love and fellowship,” she recalls.
When their moment came, Elise and Josh took their places center stage. The music of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” began, and the pair brought the dance to life, starting with the Twist and playfully mixing in the Swim, the Batman, and the Hitchhiker. Midway through, in a dramatic flourish, Elise tossed off her black wig and let her blond hair spill loose, shedding the movie role.
“It was really adorable,” says Gloria Araya, dance teacher and inspirational speaker. “And people don’t realize how much thinking it takes when you are working with a prop. For her to go from dancing with the wig and being that kind of character, and then to removing the wig—that’s not easy. And that was for her to show who she is on stage, to say, ‘I am here dancing, it is me, and let’s have fun!’ She had tremendous support from her dance partner to make her feel comfortable and make the transition look smooth.”
The crowd loved it, and Elise says she will remember that moment as one of the highlights of her “Stars” experience.
Josh says that one of the things he most enjoyed about working with Elise was their shared passion for teaching. Josh travels the country instructing young dancers, and Elise teaches in the writing program at the School of the Art Institute.
Her performance constituted a celebration of family, friends, and the Giordano dance community: “It was such a great experience, even more global and universal than I imagined it would be.”
The Adventurous Jackie Bucksbaum
Jackie Bucksbaum loves a thrill and a challenge. And when that challenge comes with an opportunity to help others, she is all in.
Becoming a contestant in “Dancing with the Giordano Stars” held lots of appeal: the chance to leap outside her comfort zone to perform for the first time ever in front of a crowd; to apply her athletic skills to a new realm (choreographed dance); and to learn to let go in front of a new community, with everyone watching, while she attempted a new skill for a good cause.
For Jackie, becoming a “Stars” contestant was a natural choice—not because it would be easy, but precisely because it would not be. It pushed her outside her comfort zone, which is where she thrives.
“Whether I’m skiing a back country mountain, joining a new group I know nothing about, or trying something I am not good at, I love the challenge,” she says. “If it leads to success, great. If not, it doesn’t matter.”
But it’s not just about the thrill of the challenge, she shares, “It’s about doing good in the community.” As a life-long learner, she’s drawn to Giordano Dance Company’s educational outreach efforts. Each spring, dancers go into the classrooms to teach dance, science, and health to under-served students in schools where arts budgets have been slashed.
Once she agreed to join the “Stars” event, she committed fully. She stepped up her dedication to pilates and yoga. Jackie and her dancing partner, Devin Buchanan—who is in his 6th season as a main company dancer—rehearsed together a few times a week for about five weeks. Rehearsals were challenging physically and mentally. “We were constantly drenched in sweat,” Jackie admits.
The process of learning a dance routine was new to her. “First you learn the dance steps, then you learn the facial expressions, then you learn to feel the music and not think about the moves,” she says. Jackie and Devin agree that this last stage—the letting go—was the hardest step for her to conquer. Fear was never an issue, and the thrills kept her pushing through a sore knee and strenuous rehearsals.
In one key dance segment, Devin lifts Jackie into an overhead handstand tuck. If she feels fear when Devin throws her up into the air, it doesn’t show. What does show is the visceral thrill. “The first time we did it well in rehearsal, it felt like a great ski run,” she recalls, laughing. “My heart was pounding and there was so much adrenaline that I missed the rest of the steps!” That moment became a touch point of laughter for Jackie and Devin throughout the many weeks of rehearsal.
Jackie has always loved music, so choosing the songs for their dance numbers was exciting. She has always been inspired by Prince, who she describes as “one of the greatest guitarists of all time.” So, it was no surprise that she chose “I will Die for You” and “Kiss” for their first number.
The next step was costuming, and her artistic sense of beauty is well displayed in her choices. For the ode to Prince, she wore a shimmering purple Chanel dress, and Devin wore a sash of matching material with a white ruffled shirt.
In the days leading up to the competition, she found herself practicing choreography in her kitchen, absent-mindedly marking steps and twirling from refrigerator to sink to stove while she prepared dinner. The hard work and commitment paid off on the stage at Park West on the night of the competition. Jackie and Devin performed wonderfully. Jackie displayed confidence, passion and flair. She had fun, and so did the audience.
Buoyed by a cheering crowd, she conquered what was for her the most difficult aspect of dance training: letting go. With 450 people watching, Jackie let loose and flourished. She will never forget the feeling of exhilaration. “The lights are shining in your face, so you can’t see the people,” she says, “But you feel their support, and it lifts you up.”
Jackie owned the moment, and everyone saw it, including her husband, John, and son Eli, a high school student at the Latin School of Chicago and himself an athlete and adventurist. “You were so great!” Eli told Jackie, as he greeted her with a hug when she came offstage. “For a minute I forgot you were my mom! You were like one of the professional dancers!”
Another member of the audience, Gloria Araya, dance teacher and personal coach, says that Jackie’s hard word showed up in the joy she conveyed on stage. “And on top of that, she was able to create these beautiful lines with her body because of how she moved it,” Gloria says. “I am sure it was very much influenced by her partner, who was really guiding her through the process…. And then there also was this spark of electricity!”
After the performances, the judges awarded Jackie Honorable Mention (Most Committed), a tribute to her hard work and dedication.
Now that the event is over, Jackie feels grateful to have been part of the Giordano Dance community. She and Devin feel fortunate to have worked together. “The experience was magical, mostly because my partner was so amazing,” Jackie says.
Devin agrees and says he has learned a lot from Jackie. “Her outlook on life is so positive, and she always has a smile on her face,” Devin says, “And when I am having a bad day and I have rehearsal with her, it completely flips my day around…. I feel vibrant. Her energy is infectious.”
What’s next for Jackie? She’s not sure yet. “I have to constantly do something to challenge myself,” she says. Jackie and her family spend as much free time as they can in Aspen, skiing, hiking, and enjoying the arts. Could Dancing with the Aspen Stars be next? “I don’t know,” Jackie says, her contemplative smile giving nothing away, “I’m not planning to make a living out of this.”
Photo credit (for all GDC photos):