17th Annual Rhumba for Rainbow for The Rainbow Project: A Time for Healing

09062021Sharyl Kato

(Above): Sharyl Kato, director of The Rainbow Project, outside of Union South where Rhumba for Rainbow will be held. (Below): Salsa competitors from the 2017 Rhumba for Rainbow


By Jonathan Gramling

For the past 41 years under the leadership of Sharyl Kato, The Rainbow Project has been giving life-healing counseling and therapy to children — and their families — who have been abused and neglected. And over the years, Kato has witnessed that there may be no better healer than joy.

“When you are working in the field of trauma, sometimes what is lost with trauma victims is the ability to experience joy, shared joy,” Kato said. “That is something that we have to remember. It’s not just treating the trauma. It is building protective factors and resiliency and that ability to appreciate beauty and joy.”

And because dealing with trauma and can be so emotionally draining, it’s important for the caregivers to experience joy as well.

“The people who work in non-profits need that sense of joy and celebration all the more now,” Kato emphasized. “We’ve never been tapped or strained as much as we have during the pandemic. And I think in building that resiliency for others, we have to remember to build resiliency for ourselves. And one of the ways that we found is that we have to promote self-care and practice it as well as experience joy and being around healthy, wonderful people.”

It was 17 years ago that Rhumba for Rainbow was founded to have an event filled with joy and to relieve the financial stress in Rainbow’s budget.

“The first Rhumba was held at the Overture Center with 181 people in attendance,” Kato said. “We were competing with the opening of something. We were really happy to have 181 people. I think the time before last was 2019, we had 750 people attending. And so we’ve been to different venues. We were at the Inn on the Park and then the Marriott. And now we are at Union South and Varsity Hall. We’re really pushing its capacity.

The 17th Rhumba for Rainbow is being held Friday, September 17, 7 p.m. to midnight at UW-Madison’s Union South.

This year’s event can be enjoyed in person or virtually. Strict safety procedures are being enforced. People will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test for COVID-19 in the past 72 hours. Masks will be worn at all times inside.

“Even the musicians will be masked and have special covered instruments,” Kato said. “We are really trying to follow all of the guidelines. And many people are thanking us for that. And we understand when people can’t be there because they are not comfortable yet. I don’t blame them. That’s why it is a hybrid event.”

But that won’t stop the party from beginning and the beats to compel people into dancing, masks and all.

The salsa comes at you three ways outside of the salsa dancing for all periods. The first is the Open Salsa Competition.



“The salsa contest came about because we have such wonderful and enthusiastic salsa dancers in this community,” Kato said. “And one reason why besides it being such fun for us is that we have a community that has such an incredible talent, not just musicians, but also the dancing. But it is also a wonderful way to present salsa dancing and the Latino community to a broad-based Madison community and bringing a diversity of people together and introducing them to such joyful music and dance.”

The second is the Dance Challenge.

“We have had people from Green Bay and Chicago doing the regular amateur dance contest,” Kato said. “But then our dance challenge is more celebrities in the community who are joining with professional instructors to practice and present and be able to compete. And so we have that annual duel between the Madison police and fire departments. There is a special trophy that goes back and forth. The fire department is now holding the championship trophy. It’s wonderful to have everyone included in participating because day-to-day, we are partners with these folks as well.”

And the third period brings on the professionals with the Dance Performance Floor Show.

“We bring in people from all over the world who are salsa performers,” Kato said. “They have been from Brazil, their eight-time national champions and world champions. We have a youth group from Milwaukee who are national champions. They are awesome and they get better and better every day. And then we have a special star-studded event this year of professional performers who are coming from New York, Oregon and other places who will also be performing.”

While there are celebrities who judge the dance contests, they judge side-by-side with professional judges to ensure the judging is based on merit and not popularity.

And what would a non-profit event be without awards? Rhumba is no different.

“We give out the Extra Mile Awards every year,” Kato said. “This is our therapy because we know that these folks are out there every day doing this work. And they are making a difference. We really want to make sure we highlight and acknowledge them. For us to collaborate with other healthy agencies, that is what keeps us going and refuels our resiliency. We also give out the Best Dressed Fashion Awards given out to attendees by judges who walk through the crowd.”

And of course there will be food. But just not like it usually is.

“Because of COVID-19, we won’t have a buffet line this year,” Kato said. “We’re having some boxed hors d’oeuvres. Each will get their own. And I think that is much safer than having the open buffet.”

Rhumba would not be possible if it weren’t for the community stepping up and making it happen.

“Sometimes we need at least 50 volunteers on the night of the event and they are doing work now,” Kato said. “Some are stage managers trying to connect with people to make sure they know where their hotel is and when they come on. We have a DJ trying to collect the music to put it in order. I don’t think people realize that. And we have MCs with scripts. It makes you want to cry that people come together and do this for us and with us. We don’t feel alone.”

And without Rhumba and the money it raises, Rainbow would not be able to serve all of the children who have experienced trauma that it now serves

“I think we serve at least 1,500-1,600 children per year right now,” Kato said. “We celebrated our 41st year. And I think we’ve served over 16,500 children and equally 16,500 adults because we never work with children in isolation. Sometimes we’re dealing with 2-3 generations of trauma. Our waiting list has definitely risen.”

So whether you’re dancing on the floor in Union South’s Varsity Hall or dancing up a storm on your living room floor, let the rhythms of Orquesta MAS – Madison All Stars carry you away with the joy that is Rhumba for Rainbow.

For ticket information, visit https://cbo.io/tickets/rainbow/tickets.