Home is Where the Heart Is

Fabian Barnes celebrates 20 years of performance and outreach.

With the grand opening of a $5 million arts complex last November, it’s hard to imagine that The Dance Institute of Washington started 20 years ago in the basement of a local church. After settling for several temporary homes, Founder and Artistic Director Fabian Barnes decided to buy a lot for $100,000 in the gentrifying neighborhood of Columbia Heights—the site of his new dream studio.

Located in a neighborhood once devastated by riots following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the 12,000-square-foot space houses four studios with specially designed dance floors and huge glass windows. “I wanted to bring art and culture into the community,” says Barnes. “And now DIW can offer more pre-professional training, community projects and adult education—under one roof.”

The youngest of 10 children, Barnes grew up in a single-parent, low-income household in Seattle. He was first exposed to dance by his older brother, who studied ballet on scholarship under the tutelage of Virginia Corkle. At first, Barnes teased his sibling, calling him “twinkle toes,” but at age 11, he decided to tag along to the studio and got hooked. “It was like getting a bug,” says Barnes. “I was jetéing and jumping around the house driving everyone crazy.”

By the age of 16, Barnes was an apprentice at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Two years later he joined New York City’s Dance Theatre of Harlem and quickly rose from apprentice to soloist. DTH Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American member of the New York City Ballet, was an inspiration: He showed that it was possible to create a school and a company that provided opportunities for African Americans. Barnes says, “[He] planted the seed.”

Barnes danced with DTH for 15 years. In 1984, while on leave from the company, he moved to DC and began teaching for the renowned Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. In 1987, he received a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to run a program for inner city youth, and DIW was born.

“If I hadn’t had dance, I would have ended up like so many of my peers—on drugs, in jail or dead,” he says. “I’ve experienced life in a way that would have never happened for me had I not danced. Now as a result, I have a responsibility to give something back.”

Dance was the vehicle Barnes used to provide education and hope to children of the Washington metropolitan area. A self-described high-energy disciplinarian, Barnes instills confidence, focus and a drive for excellence in his dancers. “Fabian Barnes is not into do-good,” Washington Post arts reporter Sarah Kaufman once wrote, “He’s strictly into do-great.”

Motivating recreational and pre-professional dancers alike is his goal. “I build up what the youngsters know and challenge them to learn new things,” he says. “With children, they can always do more than they think they can. I try to get them to understand what they are doing so that they can do it again. But first they have to have the ‘I gotta dance bug.’ I can help support them, find out where they’ll have the best experience, give them performance opportunities and teach what leads up to being onstage. I explain that you get just one instrument—injuries can end a dance career.”

To create more opportunities, Barnes founded Washington Reflections Dance Company in 2003. Derrick Spear, a 25-year-old principal dancer with WRDC, started taking summer classes at the institute in 1995. Barnes took him under his wing, and continues to nurture his choreography, allow him to create pieces for the troupe and school and teach him the nuances of running a business and directing a company. “Fabian calls me daily to check up on how I’m doing, how I feel in class,” says Spear. “He’s picky about working through the feet, transitioning from one step to another, remembering combinations and picking up quality of movement. He’s very specific about what you need to succeed in the professional dance world. He always says, ‘The devil’s in the details.’ He didn’t just teach me how to be a better dancer, but how to be a better person.”

With the help of parents, educators, professional artists and local residents, Barnes gives young people the same chance to succeed that studying dance and performing with DTH gave him. “The philosophy of what we do here is bigger than just a dance class; it’s about the whole child,” he says. “There’s a need for children to learn discipline, work ethic, tenacity—all of the things a dance program can give them.”

DIW has three core programs: dance classes for students in the community, pre-professional training and community outreach and, finally, WRDC. Scholarships or reduced tuition based on talent and need are given to 75 percent of the students. Interested participants must audition for placement in the pre-professional school (the new building more than doubles its studio space).

In addition to providing first-class training in ballet, modern, pointe, jazz, tap and African dance, Barnes created DIW’s Youth Repertory Company to showcase student’s talents and provide performance experience. In 1998, the ensemble had its first show, “Spirit of Kwanzaa,” which has become an annual event performed at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “It celebrates community and responsibility,” Barnes explains.

He founded WRDC to give dancers and choreographers professional opportunities and to use the African-American experience as a catalyst for innovative art. “There are fewer jobs than there are dancers, and Reflections provides work and also contributes to the field,” he explains. The 12-member company, working 32 weeks a year, performs new works and classics from a diverse pool of choreographic voices. The new building’s proximity to local theaters will also help develop a dance audience, as Barnes plans to rent the 285-seat GALA Hispanic Theatre in the historic Tivoli building twice a year to allow for longer performance runs.

Meanwhile, DIW’s various outreach programs develop the social, emotional, intellectual and artistic abilities of students ages 3 to 21. The free after-school “First Position” program is offered to second- and third-grade students and combines introductory ballet training with language arts activities to bolster reading and writing skills. “Creative Communities,” which is also structured around the school day and is free of charge, introduces 6 to 12 year olds to ballet and jazz and provides the necessary dance attire for each session. In addition, “Project Rise” offers AIDS awareness and education to various age groups. “There’s drugs, there’s gangs, there’s crime, there’s alcoholism; that’s what’s out there, and it’s important that we have our program to offer these kids something better,” says Barnes.

His efforts and achievements have extended well beyond DIW. An accomplished educator, he has taught ballet and modern at studios, universities, magnet arts schools, K-12 schools, conservatories and festivals; held an artist-in-residency at the Kennedy Center’s Arts Education Department; and was a panelist for the Kennedy Center’s Events for Students Ballet Master Class Series (1997–2005).

In addition to a $100,000 Use Your Life Award presented by Oprah’s Angel Network in 2000, Barnes has been honored with the prestigious Linowes Leadership Award by the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region; the DC Department of Employment Services’ Workforce Award for innovative development of jobs. He was also named semi-finalist in the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Coming Up Taller Award for excellence in arts programs for at-risk youth.

DIW has been similarly lauded. In 1998, the city of DC bestowed upon it the Mayor’s Art Award for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education. Former Presidents Bush and Clinton have also awarded the institute The Daily Points of Light Award, which honors individuals and volunteer groups that have made a commitment to connect Americans, in 1999.

Alumni have gone on to perform in college and repertory troupes as well as professional companies, including San Jose Ballet, the Lion King touring company, the American Repertory Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. “When I see dance and the power it has in my children’s lives, how it’s able to turn their lives around,” says Barnes, “it makes it all worthwhile.” DT

Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, is the author of Partnering Dance and Education: Intelligent Moves for Changing Times and Dancing for Health: Conquering and Preventing Stress.

 

Photo by John Woo

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