“Dance essentially saved my life,” says Fabian Barnes. Growing up in Seattle, he saw friends slide into drug abuse, get shot, and head for jail. Barnes channeled his energy elsewhere, and as founder of the Dance Institute of Washington, he’s helping many area kids do the same.
Besides staging professional performances, Barnes has created an apprenticeship program in the arts and encouraged mentoring relationships between career dancers and at-risk girls and boys. “Fabian was involved in our upbringing and classes, and he changed the way we thought about dance and school,” a professional dancer wrote.
After studying dance since age 11, Barnes left Seattle at 18 to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 15 years there, he fell in love with Washington while on tour. In the late 1980s he taught a master class in DC and started a summer dance institute, first aimed at deaf students and then expanded to all. Barnes made the Dance Institute of Washington a full-time passion in 1996.
Barnes’s training is aimed at more than just future dancers. Classes are purposely diverse by race and socioeconomic level—an educational opportunity for many. Though some alumni now perform with prestigious companies and on Broadway, more apply their lessons to life overall: Says Barnes, “Dance is so much about being where you’re supposed to be, on time, prepared.” And when he says that as an adolescent “I saw dance as my way out,” he can name alumni from the DC projects who say the same.
The nonprofit recently started a program for seniors as well as one for daycare kids in its Columbia Heights building. It runs classes at public charter schools, senior centers, and all four quadrants of DC. Half of students are on scholarship, and some teachers donate their time.
“I try to protect my kids from negative influences,” he says. “I impart to young people, ‘You can do it.’ ” Often to their own surprise, they do.
See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year.
This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.