"I just want to create an experience that people will remember forever. And it also just happens to be a dance camp too.”

18 | Caiti McDonald

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“Top 5, top 5, top 5” - Drake

Caiti Performs at Ascension Performing Arts' Fall Benefit (Circa 2014). 📸: Nathan Lee 

LOL. 😆 Andddd with that quote to start us off, two quick questions for you:

  • Who are your five closest friends right now? #top5
  • How much time did you spend with each of them before you considered them to be friends in the first place?

Ah yes, friendship. The ship that never sinks...hopefully. Turns out, there are people who have devoted their lives to studying friendship: how many we have, how we create strong friendships, and how we find friends in the first place. I guess friendship can be rocket science.

But anyway, back to the question: how much time do you spend with someone before you can consider them to be a friend?

*this is me giving you a minute or so to figure it out*

The experts out there say the magic number is 50 hours on average to make a casual friend. 90 hours to make a “real” friend. 200 hours if you want to think of a person as a close friend. Makes sense - the people that we often are the closest to are the people we also choose and prioritize to spend the most time with.  

I know the "best friends forever" song is playing in your head right now. 🎵

Of course, there are ways to put your friendship building on the fast track. Maybe get a best friends forever ring, Spongebob-style. Taking a look at the same friendship study, one of the best ways to strengthen your friendship with another person is to go play. Like - instead of just hanging out at work with your colleagues, go have fun and play.

That word - play - might sound a little outdated for those of us past high school and college years. Somewhere and somehow, the concept of playing with friends became “hanging out” or drinks at the café or bar. Not that caffeinated or inebriated conversations between friends isn’t wonderful (because they definitely are lol), but at some point this idea of just playing with no goal other than to have fun and enjoy each other’s company went out of style for many of us.

I’m not saying that you should run to the nearest playground on a school day for your next adventure (potentially sending out some uberrr creep vibes), but with Chicago summer on the rise, there’s so much more reason to play just to play. To reconnect with old people and connect with new ones for the first time. To find...how might you say it...kindred spirits.

*oh ho ho check out that segway though* 😆

When it comes to creating a space where kindred spirits can KIN-ect (ok ok fr fr I’m sorry I’ll stop with puns now 😅), Caiti McDonald has built quite an experience. This upcoming weekend, Caiti is getting ready to host the second ever Kindred Dance Camp.

Part dance-camp, and part camp-camp, Kindred is a unique experience that pushes dancers to play: to disconnect from the tech, reconnect with those around us, and play without worrying about all the adulting we have to do in our regular day-to-day.

Dance: The One Constant

If you’ve ever met Caiti, she is the kind of person that jumps into everything - meeting new people, seeing new places, and trying different experiences. If the world was an ice cream store, Caiti’s the one who samples all the flavors first.

This exploratory spirit is something that’s pretty characteristic of Caiti from childhood to college to career...to even now. With a little retrospect, there is one thing that seems to have stuck around as a constant the entire time - dance.

Caiti: “If you want to go wayyyy back - I’m adopted, which you can probably tell from my last name. 😂

I grew up in a town of 1500 - in Oakland, Iowa. Really lived in the country my entire life. Zero diversity.

I tried all the sports growing up. I tried basketball. It was oh so terrible. I was so bad at everything. 😂 I did volleyball, track, softball, basketball. All the things. My freshman year, our dance team at my school was the kind of team where you didn’t need dance experience to be on it. Like everyone got in. So I tried out.

...Haha. I didn’t get in.”

According to Caiti, not getting on this dance team was the best thing that could have ever happened. Instead of giving up on dance, Caiti convinced her parents to enroll her in an overnight dance camp with a nearby studio at Lake Okoboji for 4 nights.

Participating in the overnight camp meant she would be dancing alongside girls who had been training in studios since they were 3 or 4 years old. Caiti didn’t have any experience, but it didn’t matter. It’s that kind of childhood boldness that makes Caiti laugh looking back. High school dance team or not, dance experience or not, Caiti was going to create her own dance journey.

Caiti: “I was very lucky to have parents that just went for it. I think they were excited that I had found something. And I just became obsessed. After the camp, I started dancing at a studio. I would take a dance class. Then another. More and more. The learning curve was so high.

I didn’t care what I looked like. It felt amazing. The internet was really slow back then, but I would wait an hour for the videos to load, and I’d be constantly stretching or reviewing technique.”

Spring of that same year, Caiti starts doing competition routines with the nearby studio, and a year later she’s choreographing jazz and lyrical dances for the same high school team she didn’t make the year before. (She placed at state for a solo performance, thank you very much. 😉) She even convinced her parents to do a 3-day jazz dance camp in Colorado, where she didn’t know anyone.

Caiti: “We have family in Denver that we visited during a handful of summers, so I made this entire family trip around this jazz dance workshop in Boulder when I was like 15 or 16. And my parents were like OKAYYY.

They drove me up to Boulder in the morning, and then they would go sightseeing for the day in Denver and then pick me up after the camp finished.”

That’s the level of intensity that Caiti dove into things -- and it’s important to her that early on, she didn’t dance for anyone’s approval, or even to meet people. Dance was something internal for Caiti - it was fulfilling. It was play.

Dancing into Chicago

If you haven’t noticed yet, Caiti has the wanderlust bug (later on, she would study abroad in Copenhagen and take on jobs that required her to be in different cities every other week).

Christina Ola played a key role in exposing Caiti to different style of dance in college. 

 Yet, among Caiti’s graduating class of 58 kids, the willingness and desire to go out and explore the world wasn’t common. She was one of only a handful of students that ended up traveling out of state for college.

Caiti: “My main goal when I graduated was that I wanted to go to a big city and experience life! Dancewise, I wanted to continue on a contemporary track, but there was less of that at UIC at the time. I ended up going into this world of hip hop instead.”

It was a fellow UIC student - Christina Ola - that helped introduce that world to Caiti.

*cue throwback One Beat video* 😂

During college, Christina created One Beat Dance Community, opening up opportunities for Caiti to explore a variety of dance styles through workshops - including Caiti’s first ever hip hop workshop, hosted at Visceral Dance Center. In true Caiti fashion, she signed up for the workshop without knowing anyone, including the two advertised dance teachers.

The teachers happened to be none other than Keone Madrid and Ian Eastwood. 😂 Well damn.

Caiti: “I had no idea who these people were. I was like yeah - I wanna do it because I was bold and wanted to do things. Literaaalllly had no idea who they were.

I remember Youtubing them right before I left for the workshop. I was like, who are these people? What did I just sign up for? I got in this car with a girl I had just met: it was just the two of us and we went to this hip hop workshop with Ian and Keone. 😅

I remember standing in the back and only learning half. I was crying in the back - I was so confused. I was like OMG what is this. It was insane. It was amazing and I was obsessed. It was such a diverse room and my mind was already exploding from going to UIC and being the only non-white person my entire life.”

What an introduction to hip hop and the urban dance community. To build off that intro, Caiti also performed with Primo Dance Troupe starting Spring freshman year, alongside Sherry Lin.

Caiti: “Originally, Primo brought me in as the token technical dancer who would do the jazz piece. 😆 After my freshman year, everyone left Primo because they graduated so we were left with 4 returning members. We had to create a team from scratch.”

For people who know Caiti, OneBeat is also where she met Franz: “I remember being obsessed with him from a far - like before we met. I literally saw him on Youtube through One Beat because he taught but we never took each others’ classes freshman year. So I added him on Facebook and I was obsessed with him uhmmm lol it was really cute.” 😍 📸: Patrick David

Through building that team and eventually taking on the role of Primo’s president, Caiti created Never Stop Dancing, an event still held every year at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The concept was simple enough. Caiti wanted people to...never stop dancing.

Caiti: “I made up the name because I was in a communications program and I needed to make a pamphlet about an event. So I made the pamphlet and it was like - hey, we could actually do this. Primo had always had this showcase before, but there weren’t any donations to charity or anything so that was the first year that we donated to a charitable foundation.

That was Spring of 2013. It was a busy semester for me. I was interning, working a job, and balancing a full course load. So now I feel like a lazy piece nowadays, I look back and I’m like - damn you really got stuff done, and now if I have more than one thing I’m like 😭😭😭. #old.”

That semester junior year was also when Caiti first joined The Puzzle League! She had met Davina Pasiewicz and Matt Pumanes of Puzzle at one of the shows in the collegiate variety show circuit:

Caiti: “I remember Davina wrote on my facebook wall like - hope to see you at tryouts or something and I’m like oooohhhheorijgasdoifjasd my gerdddd because it was like you’re so freaking good. I showed up to auditions, and it was the last season before Piecemakers was created so Puzzle took like 55 - 60 people. It was crazy.”

Caiti makes the cut, and joins Puzzle. Coincidentally, Caiti joined during the first season that the Puzzle League traveled to compete. The destination? Philly for the Prelude Championship. 

Dancer/Blanks

Caiti also presented her own work recently at the Puzzle League WODLA Showcase!

📽️: New Pixel Films

So junior and senior year as Caiti’s balancing all these different things, but of course real life is on the horizon as graduation comes up. And with graduation comes that inevitably annoying question all undergrads get - so uh...what are you doing after you graduate? Translation: God I hope you’re employed because those student loan payments are coming any day now. 😭😭😭

Caiti applies to like 70 jobs. The end of the semester gets closer and closer, but nothing has panned out yet. She does end up getting a marketing interview which seemed to go well, but she hadn’t heard from them until...

Caiti: “I got the call on the day of graduation that I got the job. I remember telling my parents I WAS NEVER AN UNEMPLOYED GRADUATE WOOOOO! It was amazing. Then I started right into a job, and started dancing with piecemakers - so I ‘never stopped dancing’.

I think the reason I went into marketing and event planning was that I was always putting on events in college. Through dance organizations, I built a website, managed social media...things that were absolutely applicable to everyday life.”

So although she was an English major, it was Caiti’s experiences in dance that not only allowed her to pursue her creativity and art, but also provided her an opportunity to flex her communications and event planning muscles that would help secure employment later on.

And beyond those professional and career-related skills, Caiti is so thankful for dance as a force that “gave her everything.”

For one thing, friends. While Caiti was studying abroad in Copenhagen, she was contacted by someone that she had just connected with the night before she flew off to Denmark: none other than Mary Vo, who had danced with Caiti in the Puzzle League.

Power pose. Caiti during her APA Days. Left to right (Caiti McDonald, Gabby Miller, Liz Galvan, Elizabeth Mangulabnan)

It turns out that Mary was working to build something back in Chicago and wanted Caiti to be a part of the team, introducing her to another founding member named....Gabby Miller. (Psssst. Yep - that something that was being built was Ascension Performing Arts!) Caiti meets Gabby over video chat, and ultimately beings the operational groundwork for Ascension during its beginning years.

Caiti: “It really became my life the next two years. I loved incorporating my roots, technical dance, and dancing with intention. We were teaching free classes out of a church at the time and doing bible studies. I was raised Catholic, and was able to rediscover my faith through working with APA.  Liz (APA) and Gabby are my two people - for the rest of my life. They’re going to be bridesmaids.”

Ascension influenced Caiti to wrestle with what that question: What did she really want to do in life? Central to Caiti’s journey is this obsession with pursuing happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. She realized that something she kept doing throughout her experiences was self-starting things. Being at the inception point of things. From APA, to Never Stop Dancing, to finding her own dance opportunities in high school. It’s that creation process, and watching something from scratch and watching it grow and flourish.

So now, through a new idea to create what is now known as Kindred Dance Camp, dance once again presented Caiti with yet another gift. This time, it’s a mission through which Caiti is able to combine so much of what she loves into a unique experience for dancers.

Kindred: The Recipe

Starting something as ambitious as Kindred isn’t a piece of cake. It meant Caiti had to make some tough decisions: stepping away from APA and leaving her job to carve out the space and resources to devote to building Kindred.

Up to that point, she had gone through a couple jobs in advertising and experiential marketing - roles in which she excelled (Caiti joke No. 45: “I excel at excel” 😂), but didn’t necessarily feel fulfilled in. She was pursuing that higher sense of purpose, and knew becoming an entrepreneur and create something valuable and needed by people was a step in the right direction.

So how do you cook up Kindred? Like I said, Caiti really was pulling from her entire life experience to create this dance camp.

2 parts team bonding event

Perhaps at the core, Caiti wanted to create an experience where people could really connect with each other. That connection should be the priority of this new camp.

The first overnight camp Caiti went to way way back in high school was a UDA camp. By no coincidence, that camp was a team-oriented program. Looking back to her Primo days and her experience with Puzzle revealed essential elements of team bonding, too. When you compete and travel with your team, there’s a natural tendency for everyone to get closer.

Caiti: “Even with our teams traveling now, it’s not just to place. It’s because we’re family and developing those bonds. And so I was doing research and I was like - there has yet to be any overnight things for collegiate dance teams and having done Primo, I knew that there was money for reimbursement where the university will help pay for things. Nurse associations can get conferences paid for - so it would be really cool for dancers to be able to do the same thing and have it get paid for - so that’s how it kind of started.”

1 part outdoor camp

Caiti also loves the outdoors - sustainability being a huge interest for her since college. In high school, she remembers working at a summer camp. Which still ranks as Caiti’s No. 1 favorite work experience, by the way.

Caiti: “How cool would it be to have an overnight experience for dancers in a campground. And of course something I had always been interested in was sustainability and nature. It’s a huge reason that why I traveled to Copenhagen to study - I even remember visiting an island while studying abroad that was 110% energy efficient, so they actually outputting 10% of their energy because it was like all about what are they doing with their geothermal practices. Windmills. The outdoors is something that I love." 

Beyond that connection aspect, being able to bring campers to an outside experience away from the routine day-to-day would also give them that opportunity to play! *cue nostalgia feels for all the summer camps in middle school*

1 part dance development

Dance is the one constant in Caiti’s life, right? In true “Never Stop Dancing”’ fashion - Kindred Dance Camps have a faculty of camp dance facilitators that share valuable knowledge to campers. How to choreograph. How to work on performance. How to develop effective mindsets as artists. Dancers in these camps have the opportunity to learn choreography, but beyond that, tools with which they can expand their own craft.

....and a lot of logistical and operational experience.

To make this all happen, Caiti relied heavily on her past experiences working in experiential marketing, event planning, and advertising. Of course, creating the perfect recipe is an ongoing process. You gotta taste test, and adjust things over time until you get the recipe justttt right.

The original inception of the camp was to had a UDA for collegiate teams, but a big obstacles was that many college students didn’t have the money to attend the camp Caiti envisioned.

Time was a huge obstacle too. Caiti took on a new job hoping to have a little bit more flexibility, but you know how it goes: Part time work can easily become full time work, and full time work easily becomes well...a lot. Caiti was working all the time so it was hard to devote enough time to build momentum with Kindred. And with events like Kindred Dance Camp - it can be really difficult logistically if they aren’t planned a year-plus in advance.

Caiti: “For the first ever Kindred Dance Camp, I secured 86 spots with a camp site, knowing that was the pipedream. But getting wrapped up with work I realized that I couldn’t get the momentum I wanted. Instead of marketing to collegiate teams, I realized it was more individual people that signed up. Friends or people who had already graduated. So even with 8 months, Caiti ended up with 27 people including the staff for the first camp.”

The very first Kindred Dance Camp featured local powerhouses who worked to give back to dancers in their community!

The very first Kindred Dance Camp featured local powerhouses who worked to give back to dancers in their community!

Turns out the smaller size actually made the camp better! It mean that participants had a much easier time connecting with each other - which was, after all, the main focus of Kindred in the first place.

The success of the camp was due in no small part to faculty members who were all local leaders in the community - including Davina and Matt Pumanes of the Puzzle League, and Julia Yang and Franz De Guzman of CODA.

Caiti: “The camp was amazing, Davina did a talk and night activity on imposter syndrome that bonded the entire camp together for life. She took confidence building and human connection to a whole new level.

Franz did this musicality class that to this day changes the way I listen to music. I mean we’ve been dating for like six years, Like I know him, but to take from him in this way - it wasn’t just a choreo class. He did teach a piece at the end, but he reached out to so many people to make a curriculum that really gave you tools. He reached out to some freestylers, and did his own research and training to prepare for the camp.

And Matt as well! He choreographs so quickly and even his blocking and visuals is amazing. He ended up with this six page packet on choreographing for different things, like class, or staging for performances - obviously it’s his own perspective and process, but to get a peek into his mind was amazing. All the campers got a notebook and pen and we were all taking crazy notes on how he maps choreography.

Julia’s class was on freestyle and facials. And if you know Julia - she feels dance to her core. Her showmanship and performance is amazing. And in true Julia form she took us out of the rec hall and we were literally outside in a field and did facial exercises and she challenged us to channel our movement past our bodies along with freestyle exercises definitely from our APA background - exercises like dance this color.

It also helped that the weekend was perfect. It was a sunny blue day, perfect 77 degrees - it was ahh mazz inggg. That night, each one of the coaches got five people, and each of the groups had to create their own routine. None of the coaches could help choreograph, but they guided the groups in creating a piece - and some people didn’t even know each other. And there’s a showcase at the end, too!”

Not to mention, for 4-5 hours Saturday and Sunday there are activities. Camp activities. Crate stacking. Paddling (Who got lost last time? 😂). Archery. It’s so incredible as adults to have your days mapped out for you - and to play. No phones. You don’t have to worry about what your plans are. You don’t have to worry about who’s cooking for you. You can be a kid. All you need to do is come. Bond. Experience the camp. Play and make memories.

Caiti: “The theme that it came down to when I started with Kindred was - I just want to create an experience that people will remember forever. And it also just happens to be a dance camp too.”

I get it, leaving for a weekend is difficult. And without your phone?! I feel like for a lot of people, disconnecting from your phone and tech is something we all dream about; something we love in theory, although we never let ourselves take that first step into actually trying it out. I actually went to this retreat a few weeks back with no tech or phones allowed at all. And the first hour of the retreat was such a struggle. I kept rubbing my butt trying to search my phone, so I’m sure everyone else at the retreat was like why is John rubbing his butt all the time... 😧

But I encourage you - once you fully commit to going all weekend without your phone or tech, and just being in a space with other people - it is so liberating.

The Vision

Kindred Dance Camp is different from conventions like Monsters where you might see a big name. Or even compared to some home-grown experiences with amazing resources like Reveal or Intensive.PNG. The main focus for Kindred is to push you outside of your comfort zone and into interacting and learning with others with all locally-based dancers.

In the same way that play seemed to be going out of style as we got older, Caiti recognized that for many dancers coming out of college, there can sometimes be this pressure to either be very casual with dancing - taking a class here or there - or entering the industry full-time. You either pursue dance 150% as a career, or drop it entirely.  

It’s here where Caiti introduces this concept of a dancer/blank (pronounced “dancer slash blank”, shoutout to Austin Lim’s Dance, Work, Balance!). It’s actually the first time I’ve really heard the concept articulated this way, but it’s something that I totally relate to. A lot of us end up graduating high school and/or college, and we begin pursuing careers and juggling new priorities. We may not be in dance classes 24/7, or we may not be dancing for our 9 to 5 day jobs, but dance and the dance community remain a significant part of our lives. Even become dancers/entrepreneurs. Or dancer/healthcareprofessionals. Or dancer/programmers. Or dancer/designers. Or dancer/students/1000otherthings. Yet, the “dancer/” still sticks around. For Caiti, another huge part of Kindred is creating a platform not only participants who identify as dancer/blanks, but also for the staff as well who seek an avenue to share and grow their art.

Caiti: “I’m all about throwing a bunch of things and seeing what catches. To be able to produce camps and a low cost and not really make a whole lot, but right now it’s about putting energy into staff which could be the most exciting thing.

I do recognize it would be easier to get campers if I just able to pull from a big name and then increase the price, and I know people would come. That’s still pretty exciting and could be a possibility for Kindred in the future. But I think what is exciting about Kindred right now is that by pulling from our peers, we get to highlight our own community. I want Kindred to be a sustainable cycle of sharing knowledge.

Why are we still dancing? Besides that we love it, besides that our friends are doing it...what is our purpose in dance in the case that it’s not going to sustain us financially or livelihood wise? What if our purpose could become a cycle of giving this information to this generation? So each generation gets more and more experience and take these tools to their own groups. They wouldn’t have to move to LA or New York to get those tools. What I still think is lacking is providing people like us the opportunity to get paid to dance and so what could that look like in revolutionizing this whole competitive dance industry of competition teams and companies?”

Kindred Dance Camp: Creator’s Edition

The newest edition of Kindred Dance Camp features dance community members Carly Carroll, Derrick Apigo, Matt Pumanes, and more!

The newest edition of Kindred Dance Camp features dance community members Carly Carroll, Derrick Apigo, Matt Pumanes, and more!

We’re on the verge of the second iteration of Kindred Dance Camp, and there’s so much more that’s being offered this time around - like an expanded Q&A with the camp facilitators, where you can ask people like Derrick Apigo or Carly Carroll any questions you have. It’s something that the campers loved from last time; to just sit and listen to people’s stories.

For a lot of dancers, Kindred was their most favorite experience (not even just dance experience) of the year. In fact, a huge percentage of the first camps attendees are coming back -  a testament to the strength and uniqueness of this experience. And Caiti 👏 wants 👏 you 👏 to 👏 go 👏. One of the most important things for Caiti is that it’s affordable af. Right now, its $175, but that includes everything: all the classes, lodging, activities, and food. Even then, Caiti says that if money is the only reason why you can’t go: let her know!

Caiti: “Why can’t I make things more affordable? We will totally figure it out. We can do payment plans. Or now, we have shirt proceeds that go towards scholarships for dancers! Someone can buy a shirt on our online store, and then specify who they want the proceeds of the shirt to go to. You could essentially get all your camp fees paid for in shirts. The money from the shirts doesn’t have to go to Kindred - it can go to the participants. I don’t care, I just want people to get outdoors!”

Want to learn more about this upcoming weekend’s camp schedule? Check out the website at dancekindred.com, where every single detail of the camp down to the minute is spelled out for you  (thanks organization queen Caiti). The store is there too, if you wanted to buy a shirt, and send a camper to Kindred!

Ultimately at its core, Kindred remains the same. It’s about disconnecting to connect. It’s about forging new bonds. It’s about play.

Caiti: “It’s the idea of pushing how deep our connections can be with people. There’s been an intangible bond created though dance that’s past the surface-level conversations we have so often. Dance can break down walls and join us on a level that I don’t see too often, especially among the people I work with.  

Kindred spirits - I use it all the time. There’s something that happens when you see yourself in other people: it helps you build confidence, and be like “I’m not crazy” and all those other things. That’s why it’s called Kindred. I know now that Kindred is something that gives me such joy and it’s something that I want to do forever.” ⭐