- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

Preston W. Dugger III played football, ran track and even laced up for boxing lessons as a boy growing up in Fort Washington. Those activities led officials at Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School in Landover to think his athletic skills might translate to the arts.
"They saw my potential and took me on from there," says Mr. Dugger, who landed in the performing-arts school's dance program without ever having danced before. "I had two left feet. Anyone will tell you that."
Mr. Dugger brings his "two left feet" to Wolf Trap Tuesday as part of the Dance Theatre of Harlem's latest trek to the area. The renowned troupe will perform three dance selections that typify its blend of modern and neoclassical movement.
The 21-year-old dancer is one of four area natives in the ensemble. Other locals in Tuesday's performance will be Eric Underwood, Kellye A. Saunders (who joined the company as an apprentice in 1985 and became a principal dancer a decade later) and Rejane Duart.
Mr. Dugger will be featured prominently in "South African Suite," a piece inspired by DTH's 1992 trip to the former land of apartheid. At the time, the visit marked the first time an American dance company had performed in South Africa after the lifting of a 30-year ban by U.S. cultural organizations.
Mr. Dugger's dancing days may have begun at the Maryland magnet school, but they represent only a small part of his dance credentials.
"I danced all over the place, from the Maryland Youth Ballet to the Arlington Center for Dance," he says before adding the Washington Ballet, the Dance Institute of Washington and the Joffrey Ballet School to his resume.
A best friend, enrolled in the Kennedy Center's Dance Theatre of Harlem residency program, led Mr. Dugger to a four-year stint of his own with the company.
DTH initially invited him to perform with its Dancing Through Barriers educational ensemble in 1999 after he graduated from Suitland High School's visual and performing arts program. He took a place with the dance company a year later.
He responds to the sense of family engendered by the troupe. "My family was very, very tight. To have a job [environment] similar to that works for me," he says.
He chalks up part of that atmosphere to the enduring influence of Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell, who co-founded the company with the late Karel Shook in 1969, in part as a commitment to Harlem residents following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
"We're his children pretty much," he says.
Today, the Dance Theatre of Harlem boasts a touring ballet company, an accredited dance school and its aforementioned outreach arm.
Though dancers went on strike five years ago over financial concerns, the company's reputation for world-class performances remains intact.
Its Wolf Trap show, in addition to "South African Suite," will include "Firebird" and George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments." (Mr. Balanchine once instructed Mr. Mitchell when the young dancer was performing with the New York City Ballet.)
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What sets DTH apart from other dance groups, now that more and more companies boast multicultural casts, is the diversity of material, says Mr. Underwood, 22.
"We do so many classics as well as modern pieces," he notes, quickly adding that he feels more comfortable tackling classic fare.
Mr. Underwood's dance career began in as unconventional a manner as Mr. Dugger's.
Mr. Underwood auditioned for a local performing-arts high school, but his acting skills left the administrators lukewarm. He decided to switch gears and tried out for its dance program.
He had no previous dance training but calls himself "naturally flexible."
That program led to his acceptance into the Kennedy Center's Dance Theatre of Harlem residency. He spent four years with that program, then studied in New York City before returning to DTH as a full company member two years ago.
Mr. Underwood, who will be featured at Wolf Trap in "The Fourth Temperament," sees himself teaching when he hangs up his ballet shoes. The Suitland High School graduate spent two weeks as an instructor at Towson University last year, and the experience confirmed his plans.
"My focus on dancing was from a technical standpoint," he says. "I'm able to transfer that to students."
Mr. Dugger plans to teach someday as well, he hopes with DTH's residency program.
He remembers when he was a child watching dance recitals without being aware of the techniques of the craft.
"There are kids where I grew up who are in the same boat," he says. "Just knowing I can [help] some other kid is what keeps me dancing."

WHAT: The Dance Theatre of Harlem
WHERE: Wolf Trap's Filene Center, Vienna
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
TICKETS: $10 to $36
PHONE: 703/255-1860

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