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Denise Roberts Hurlin

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Fighting AIDS on Fire Island

Posted: 07/16/2012 2:28 pm

As I head out this weekend to Fire Island Pines for the 18th year in a row, I'm the first to admit I'm not your typical Pines visitor. I'm a straight, married mother traveling with my husband, teenage kids, two brothers and our ebullient Aunt Millie.

I go to the legendary gay enclave as founding director of Dancers Responding to AIDS, a program of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and producer of Fire Island Dance Festival, a spectacular, diverse celebration of dance on the shores of the Great South Bay.

But even more, I go because, all these years later, my heart still breaks when I learn of friends who have recently tested positive for HIV -- friends like Patrick Corbin.

Patrick and I joined Paul Taylor Dance Company at the same time. Paul liked to work with us in the studio, so Patrick and I often danced together. Patrick's partner at the time was a beautiful dancer with the Joffrey Ballet who lost his battle with AIDS in 1995. Together, Patrick and I spent many hours and days crying and mourning, wondering when the epidemic would end.

Now, 20 years after I helped start DRA, being there for Patrick as he discovered he was HIV-positive himself makes the human aspect of the disease once again very real to me.

I am proud, relieved and downright elated that due to the advances in treatment for HIV/AIDS Patrick is living an active, successful life. After celebrated careers with Paul Taylor and the Joffrey Ballet, he's now artistic director of his own company, CorbinDances. It is not easy. Quality health care that makes life-saving medications available means living with HIV, while still a challenge, is no longer a death sentence. And because Patrick puts a lot of effort into his own care, we can look forward to growing old together. Some of the services available to him -- and to hundreds of thousands of other men, women and children in the same plight across the country -- exist because of the money raised at Fire Island Dance Festival. I am so grateful that the work we do is making a difference for so many.

Most people don't wake up and think, "Today, I am going to start an organization to help people and it will become my life's work."

But in the early '90s as more and more men -- close friends of mine -- were getting very sick, death had become a regular, vicious part of our young lives. The medications, resources and access to essential services that save and enhance Patrick's life today simply did not exist. Two vibrant dancers in the Paul Taylor Company with me -- Christopher Gillis and Jeff Wadlington -- were becoming increasing ill and quietly desperate. Hernando Cortez, a fellow Paul Taylor dancer, turned to me after rehearsal one day and said, with both determination and exasperation, "We have to do something." And Dancers Responding to AIDS was born.

With the help of our friends, some of the most extraordinary performers in the dance world, we began exploring ways to unite our community behind an effort to raise money for those living with HIV/AIDS. We wanted to help them find the care and support they so urgently needed -- both emotionally and practically -- just to continue to work and live their lives day to day. We wanted to fight to end the stigma that surrounded the disease and make sure that no one facing these intense personal challenges did so in isolation or shame.

It was a tall order, but the Fire Island Pines seemed like the place to start. The Pines community was reeling from the loss of countless partners, friends and neighbors due to AIDS. (I will never forget the first time I saw the closing scene in Longtime Companion as the ghosts of men lost gather on the beach.)

Our friends in Pines were ready and willing to help us as a community in crisis. In July 1995, with a few dancers and a make-shift dance floor, DRA presented the first Fire Island Dance Festival. Ten dancers came out on the ferry and entertained an audience of 75 people and $8,000 was raised.

From those humble beginnings, the festival has expanded to three performances over a July weekend every year. Against the backdrop of a brilliant sunset, it's raised more than $2.5 million to help fund medicines and counseling, healthy meals and a safe place to sleep, emergency financial assistance and so much more across the country. This year, Dancers Responding to AIDS celebrates the 18th edition of the festival July 20 to 22.

A person becomes active in a cause because of personal experiences that affect her life. I was compelled to step up and do my best to make a difference because I felt there was no other option. I no longer make my living as a dancer, but I feel more connected to the dance world now than I ever did performing on some of the most prestigious stages across the world.

And so this weekend, in honor of Patrick and in memory of Christopher and Jeff and so many others, I'll be back in Fire Island Pines with my family. Not just the family I go home to every night, but also my family of Pines friends and supporters, and my family of dancers, who, like me, still band together year after year, striving to make a difference for those who need help confronting and overcoming what may be the most serious challenge of their lives.


Fire Island Dance Festival 18, produced by and benefiting Dancers Responding to AIDS, runs July 20-22 in Fire Island Pines, NY. Tickets for the 5 pm performances on Saturday, July 21, and Sunday, July 22, are available at dradance.org or by calling 212.840.0770.

 
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