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Sundance began in 1988 as a 10-year anniversary party for Steve Elkins and his partner, Murray Archibald.

It was also the first major benefit in Rehoboth Beach to assist people living with AIDS, then a burgeoning crisis. Longtime attendee Sondra Arkin of Washington, D.C., said the gay community and their allies were looking for ways to support those living with AIDS.

“That was an important factor for us to find that support," she said. 

Now, Sundance has consistently raised six-figure sums in recent years, hitting a high of $196,000 several years ago.

The 30th Sundance is coming to Rehoboth Beach this weekend, Sept. 2 and 3. Tickets are $45 for one night or $80 for both and can be purchased at camprehoboth.com or by calling 302-227-5620.

And, from its earliest days, Sundance was something else, too: A party like southern Delaware rarely saw.

“It changes the (Rehoboth Mall) into a Studio 54, hot Manhattan club,” said Fay Jacobs of Rehoboth Beach.

That combination of celebration and philanthropy has continued over the decades, creating something of a timeless party that has stayed the same even as biggest fans have changed.

Some dance into the morning hours, but some, Jacobs included, no longer have that stamina.

“By that time I’m home and in bed,” she said. 

Sundance a CAMP tradition

The story of Sundance is intertwined with that of CAMP Rehoboth, a nonprofit that started in 1991 with the goal, Elkins said, of building a better and safer community for everyone. Elkins is the group’s executive director, and his partner, Archibald, is the head of its board.

When the group started, hate crimes were a not uncommon occurrence.

“It’s not quite as bad as it was 25 years ago,” Elkins said, though “every once in awhile, homophobia will rear its ugly head.”

Its current focus on community-building is something of a mark of progress itself. Sundance now benefits CAMP Rehoboth.

“The kind of advocacy that CAMP does now wasn’t on our radars then,” said Arkin, the long-time volunteer.

Cocktail party, then dance

Sundance is a two-day event with a reliable formula: Saturday evening is more sedate, with a cocktail party and auctions.

“The next day, we transform the place into a New York night club,” Elkins said.

He said the auction night usually draws about 700 people, with about 1,000 for the dance night.

Sundance, long held at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, was moved to the Rehoboth Mall last year while the center was renovated. That renovation is ongoing, so the event will once again be held at the largely vacant mall, which will be turned into “an absolutely gorgeous place,” Jacobs said.

Last year, the silent auction contained about 600 items, which makes up a bulk of the event’s charitable contributions.

Jacobs helped write the descriptions.

“Some of it’s funny, some of it’s fun, some of it’s very gay,” she said.

This year, the auction will include an Alaskan cruise, a week in Hawaii for four and a set of diamond and pearl earrings valued at $7,000.

“Because it’s charity, people aren’t looking for deals,” she said. “They bid (the items) up.”

On Sunday, the mall will be turned into a nightclub. As Arkin describes it, the appeal is inseparable from the camaraderie.

“It’s very fun to be in a dance where you can dance in a complete circle and know everybody,” she said. “It’s like being at a wedding where you’re with family and friends. That’s what this is on a really big scale.”

Though there is plenty of parking on site, organizers will also be running free shuttle buses from downtown to the mall.

“If you think you’re going to drink a lot, Uber over,” Arkin said.

Especially for its longest devotees, Sundance has a timelessness about it, even if they themselves do not.

When Arkin attended the first one, she was in her 30s, and “at that part of young adulthood where things start looking more boring and you’re not going out.”

“As the years draw on, we go out even less,” Arkin said.

Sundance, though, has stayed the same.

“Year after year, we made a big spectacular party that we would want to go to," she said. 

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