ANDERSONVILLE — Kirby Reed tells his dancers he loves them.
“Because through you, I move again,” he said.
Reed, a renowned jazz, modern and hip-hop dancer in Chicago, can no longer feel the left side of his body after multiple strokes. But that hasn’t stopped him from expressing himself.
Reed still regularly teaches classes at the Gus Giordano Dance School, 5230 N. Clark St., guiding generations of young dancers who have gone on to the grace the stages he once captivated.
At a Thursday class, Reed commanded the room from his seat. He demonstrated the moves he could with his right foot. He pounded his microphone into his heart and told his dancers to “convince me.”
“Let your spirits tell a story,” Reed told the class. “Every time you get to move, with these two legs and your arms, it’s a blessing, believe me.”
The former banker from the South Side picked up dance in his mid-20s, earning a scholarship to Chicago’s revered Joel Hall Dancers. That was the first step in a long career that brought Reed to perform across the country and start the dance program at Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave.
Reed’s classes were voted “must-takes” in Dance Spirit Magazine, and he was named best hip-hop teacher by Chicago Magazine.
But a life brimming with music and movement came crashing to a halt in 2009.
Reed was teaching a class at Joel Hall when a student asked him why he was slurring his words. Reed collapsed. Within the hour, he had two strokes and two heart attacks, he said.
Reed was alive but paralyzed. He couldn’t walk or talk, let alone dance.
“I had not been rested. I was always dancing. And, eventually, if you don’t sit yourself down, God will,” Reed said. “I had to learn how to live with a new body, how to deal with being perceived in my new body. You think about the people you thought would be there for you, and then they’re not.”
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Amy Giordano, the daughter of famed late dancer Gus Giordano, was in the process of moving her father’s studio from the suburbs to the city when Reed had the strokes and heart attacks.
As Reed was recovering, Amy Giordano was thinking about the life-altering car crash she had in high school. She’d led her father’s dance school even though she couldn’t do much dancing herself.
Amy Giordano bought Reed a wheelchair, then a motorized scooter. She still helps pay for his food, electric bills, rides and eyeglasses; she recently helped Reed move into an assisted living home.
And she gave him classes to teach.
Reed had been one of Gus Giordano’s most beloved instructors. Gus Giordano preached dance to everyone, from the naturally rhythmic to those with two left feet, as “an opportunity to be free and open up new avenues of your life,” his daughter said.
“Because that’s how you treat family,” Amy Giordano said. “He’s open and accepting and has such a joy for the knowledge he can share. He’s Gus’ ambassador. We need him as much as he needs us.”
Teaching at Giordano School has saved Reed’s life, he said.
“When I stop celebrating myself, they celebrate me,” he said.
Lauren Giordano, Amy’s daughter and Gus’ granddaughter, took classes with Reed before and after his health scares. He was “an athletic dancer who owned his space. You couldn’t keep your eyes off him,” Lauren Giordano said.
“And the level of his classes haven’t changed since. You’ll always leave shaking and dripping with sweat,” Lauren Giordano said. “What has changed is his message. Because now Kirby has so much more experience, struggles and perseverance to express in his choreography. It’s made him an even better teacher.”
About 20 high school dancers followed Reed’s lead in a recent class on a contemporary dance to Oleta Adams’ cover of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”
Reed had performed Adams’ song years ago with an old mentor. It reminded him of “loss and recovery.” He’s choreographing it again to process the recent and sudden death of his assistant and best friend, Drew Coleman, who helped Reed immensely with his day-to-day care.
“This music has been in me. I’ve been holding it together,” Reed told his class. “You have no idea how this is healing. I can climb from this darkness.”
Reed relayed the nuances of leg swings and spins to an assistant, who demonstrated to the class. He emoted with his eyes, acted out motions with his hand, cheered for his dancers and cracked jokes after it all.
Reed struck a pose in his seat and told the class, “Use me as an example. Use me.”
Dancer Lilly Cope, 16, has danced with Reed at Gus since she was in second grade.
“He has this special way of seeing every dancer in the room,” Cope said. “We see him as an inspiration. It’s a unique opportunity we have, to help him tell his story.”
Dancer Shaolin Cuevas, 17, said Reed will “always be a part of Gus.”
“We’re not just dancing for ourselves,” she said.
With Reed’s second chance to teach, a network of supporters and a new apartment, he said he’s “finally found stability again.” But he misses dancing and struggles to sleep. He stays up rearranging the photos of his dancers he has on the walls.
“I’m up all night choreographing my house,” he said.
Reed told his dancers he would head home dreaming about completing their new rendition.
“My purpose is to give kids a better sense of who they are and what they are. To allow them to be free,” Reed said. “The world can suck your energy quickly, but you can get through anything.”
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