Partygoers were surprised to hear that last night’s was the first ever held by the Dance Institute of Washington in its 25 years of existence. The mission of the Columbia Heights studio, run by director Fabian Barnes, is to provide arts education to underserved communities and bring together students of all ages and backgrounds to learn important life skills through dance.
“Dance really gave me the focus and ability to take criticism that has made me successful,” says Kristin Smith, an alumna of Dance Institute of Washington. The 23-year-old was the only student from DC Public Schools in her class to attend Harvard University. She is now a graduate student at Georgetown and a fellow at the State Department.
If Smith’s remark wasn’t testament enough to DI’s impact, the well-attended party at the French Embassy certainly cemented its status as an important cultural institution in the District. Both Mayor Gray and council member Jim Graham were in attendance and honored the school by declaring November 29 “Dance Institute of Washington Day.”
Other guests, including WUSA9 anchor JC Hayward and artist Lou Stovall, enjoyed a French meal of steak and salmon, followed by a crème brûlée worthy of a state dinner. During the meal, honors were presented to Arthur Mitchell, director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, for inspiring Barnes to create the Dance Institute of Washington, and to Reginald Van Lee for his philanthropic support.
The highlight of the evening was the dance program performed by both students of the Dance Institute of Washington and company members from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Onlookers could feel the joy that dance was bringing; from pop-locking to ballet, the mood in the auditorium was exuberant.
The assembly seemed particularly taken by a boy of about 11 or 12 who performed such tricks as wrapping his arms backward around his body to a hip-hop rhythm. Modern dancer Daniel Moore’s fluttering chenee turns to a Philip Glass piece inspired goosebumps.
The Dance Institute of Washington offers many of its students at least partial scholarships, which gives them access to classes and training in multiple genres of dance, opening up a world of styles outside of hip-hop. In a tribute video shown last night, alumni and current participants spoke of bending stereotypes as classically trained black ballet dancers.
And dance isn’t where the training ends. The Institute also offers classes for financial literacy, conflict management, and other life skills they may not be getting elsewhere.
“While we were developing Columbia Heights, we wanted the premier African-American dance company right there,” council member Graham said. “Fabian Barnes is magnificent and brilliant, and this program is magnificent and brilliant.”