- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

"What do you mean you don't know if you can get there?" calls Fabian Barnes, founder and artistic director of the Dance Institute of Washington, to a young dancer whose already extended arabesque is not quite high enough or full enough to suit.
"Of course you're going to get there you just have to work a little harder."
Mr. Barnes and his troupe of young dancers are working harder than ever these days, getting ready for their seventh annual "Spirit of Kwanzaa" performance at the Kennedy Center Saturday and Sunday. Public celebrations of Kwanzaa, which begins today and runs through Jan. 1, are increasing throughout the Washington area. Festivities range from simple ceremonies at area libraries and community centers to major performances at such august venues as the Kennedy Center and the historic Lincoln Theatre in Shaw.
Such celebrations have a way of evoking the spirit of the holiday, envisioned in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He saw it as a chance for peoples of African heritage to gather together to recover and reclaim African culture.
At the Dance Institute of Washington (DIW) there are steps to be learned, places to be marked, and choreography to be memorized. But it is clear that Mr. Barnes, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal, is doing a lot more than simply preparing his students for a show. Mr. Barnes is intent on using the principles of Kwanzaa to prepare his students for life.
"I want my students to connect with the themes and be able to find the presence inside themselves to deal with the things that come their way," he says. "The discipline you develop from learning a dance step or a complicated piece of choreography is the same kind of discipline that's going to serve you whatever you decide to do with your life."

Over the past few years, Mr. Barnes has taken the Dance Institute of Washington to new levels of visibility in the press and in the public. His dancers have graced the stage at the Lincoln Theatre and Wolf Trap as well as the Kennedy Center. Already, former students are dancing with professional companies, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, and the San Jose Ballet in California.
Mr. Barnes has received numerous citations for his efforts, including an Oprah Angel Network award.
The DIW production of "The Spirit of Kwanzaa" features students from the senior and junior youth repertoire ensembles, members of the junior youth repertoire ensemble "apprentices" youngsters of 5, 6 and 7 and performances by other artists.
The multimedia event includes video, narration, poetry, drumming, choral music, and, of course, dance. The production deals more with the essence of the holiday than it does with the actual rituals that accompany its observance. But its link to African culture, and its reliance on the seven principles of Kwanzaa as the mortar that holds the entire production together, is strong.
And so are the expectations for the students.
"People told me I had potential, but no one has put me on a level that was quite as high as this," says William Robinson, 17, a Northeast resident who has been with DIW for less than three months and has only been dancing "seriously" for the last year.
"The level of professionalism that they expect really impresses me," he says.

Professionalism is one reason that "The Spirit of Kwanzaa" has moved to progressively larger venues over the years. It began in 1996 as a one-night-only performance at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium. The next year it moved to the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, but even that large venue was not sufficient. Now at the Concert Hall, "The Spirit of Kwanzaa" has been sold out for its two performances.
Another reason might be the nature of the competition.
"Washington audiences have been starving to do something non-traditional, something other than a glittery holiday celebration," says Mr. Barnes. "Look at our ticket prices they are affordable. Plus, we're giving the community something of substance."
The same can be said for his dancers, who are drawn from all quadrants of the city and beyond.
"The Dance Institute of Washington is more than just your average studio," Mr. Barnes explains. "We get involved with the whole child."
At DIW, outreach includes classes for preschoolers as well as tutoring and mentoring opportunities for older students. Parents like Edna Devin have organized themselves to provide essential support services. In addition to driving daughter Kaiti, 12, back and forth from their home in Columbia nearly every day, Mrs. Devin alters costumes, organizes meals for the dancers during the long rehearsals at the Kennedy Center, and is very handy with a glue gun.
And her daughter is thriving.
"Whatever I do now I do full out," says Kaiti, who already dances with the 16-year-olds and dreams of performing with the New York City Ballet. "I want to make my stuff bigger and longer so the audience can see me."
So Mrs. Devin doesn't really mind the drive time, or the three days a week when she and Kaiti don't get home until 10 p.m. And she appreciates the Dance Institute's willingness to instill a work ethic and a sense of camaraderie among the dancers, regardless of skill level.
"It's not like a dance studio, it's a home," says Antonio Hudnell, 18. He is a veteran dancer who has danced with Debbie Allen, the dancer, choreographer and director who starred in "Fame," and has been on the same stage as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
"The teachers are wonderful, and the parents are so involved. It's a place where I feel I can grow as a dancer and a person," Mr. Hudnell says.
"One of things I'll always remember happened right after I got here," says William Robinson. "We were rehearsing at some space, and my mother was a little unwilling to let me off we didn't really know the place. And one of the other parents was already there and said, 'I know he's your son, but tonight he can be mine.'"

During the celebration of Kwanzaa, a new candle is lit each day for seven days to commemorate the seven principles, or "Nguzo Saba," of Kwanzaa. The principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
Although no candles are lit at the Dance Institute, the Kwanzaa principles are practiced daily. The result, students and parents say, is a commitment to community and a dedication to excellence that is rare in any venue. Many students come to the studio nearly every day, and no one seems to mind that he or she is missing out on the things more closely associated with being a teen like playing basketball, watching television or hanging out with friends.
"It's all around us," explains Mr. Barnes. "We talk about the importance of expressing yourself creatively. When we work in unison, that's group unity. When a student knows that he or she can do a move, that's self-determination. And when the parents all pull together, that's cooperative economics. Everything in the production of 'The Spirit of Kwanzaa' involves the principles."
And when they are finally ready to dance, Mr. Barnes, along with associate artistic directors Kevin Malone and Dean Anderson, are more than ready to explain the meaning behind the movements.
"The piece is called 'First Fruits,' not 'the last batch,'" calls associate director Kevin Malone to the dancers. His dance includes an imaginative recreation of a market day in some unnamed African village, and the dancers have been rehearsing it for the last two hours.
"You look like the Giant we want Fresh Fields," he says.
The students relax and regroup to try it one more time.
"I wanted the dances to reflect a celebration of the African-American experience," explains Mr. Malone, who has also choreographed two other pieces for the Kennedy Center event. "I wanted to highlight the celebratory nature even though some of the past is ugly. I want people to see beauty, faith and the sense of community that people had then."

As an added bonus this year, Mr. Barnes invited Christopher Huggins, the choreographer and former Alvin Ailey dancer, to choreograph a work especially for the group. Mr. Huggins is renowned: This year he won the prestigious Ira Aldridge Award for Best Choreography, awarded by the Black Theater Alliance in Chicago for his work "Enemy Behind the Gates" for the Philadelphia Dance Company.
"I wanted to do something to show us coming from Africa to America," says Mr. Huggins. "The piece embodies the coming over and the establishment of us as a people."
The result is "Many Rains Ago" an evocative mixture of passion and promise, that limns the development of the African diaspora.
"I always knew about Kwanzaa but I didn't get into it until recently" says Mr. Huggins, who confesses to an added appreciation for Kwanzaa since he's come to work with the group. "It's a very spiritual holiday that we all should embrace."
For Mr. Malone's "Ancestral Memory" segment of the "Spirit of Kwanzaa," a piece that incorporates modern dance, African movements, classical elements, and the "Harlem Shake," Mr. Hudnell was inspired to do a little research on his own.
"I had to go back a little and find out about my roots," says Mr. Hudnell, a Wilson High School senior. "I feel like I'm grabbing hold of a lot of information and not all of it is about dancing."
Others don't have to cast that far back to find their own stories of struggle.
"My mom used to want to be a dancer," remembers William. "But my grandfather told her that there were no black ballerinas and she was wasting her time. So she quit."
If Mr. Barnes has his way, there will always be an opportunity for any child who wants to be a dancer and is willing to work. That's precisely what Dance Institute is all about, he says, and why the Kwanzaa program is so important at instilling esteem, achievement and a sense of history.
"This is your moment," associate artistic director Dean Anderson reminds the students. "It doesn't matter where you are on the stage. You can make somebody look at you and see you."
For this moment, William is perfectly content to be in the back row of Mr. Malone's "Sweet in the Morning."
"It never bothers me," he says with a smile. "I'm so grateful to be here. And I believe them when they say 'There are no small parts only small dancers.' I know I can make the dance."

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