Step Off Dance Institute of Washington Moves to a Grim Financial Backbeat

Njeri Jarvis, a 20-year-old student at the Dance Institute of Washington, taps her foot softly on the white, tiled floor of the studio at the Stables Art Building. Meanwhile, a souled-up version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” blasts, as 10 other dancers curl up into balls on the floor around her. Jarvis makes her grand entrance—fiercely weaving and twirling and spinning around their prone bodies. “Seeeee how they...how they...how they...shiiiiinnnnnnnne!”

Fabian Barnes, the institute's director and founder, slips into the room and peers at the rehearsal for a moment. He then returns to his small, makeshift office adjacent to the studio to resume the fight. To resume the calling and faxing and pleading—to make sure that Jarvis and the others are rehearsing for a performance that someone besides himself might actually see.

For years, the Dance Institute of Washington (presently located at D and 18th Streets NW) has symbolized all the best intentions of the District, a city that believed it could—and should—teach its kids to dance and sing and draw. For nine summers, Barnes has been instructing D.C.'s children in his combination of classical, modern, and jazz dance. And for nine summers, the D.C. government has paid him to do so. More than 200 D.C. kids have studied under Barnes, with some graduating to prestigious dance institutes like New York's Alvin Ailey School or Broadway productions like Dream Girls. Since 1990, the summer school has put on a public production of its work—beginning with one show at Duke Ellington High School and eventually culminating with three shows at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium last year.

“It's been a lot of fun,” says Jarvis, now finishing her third summer under Barnes. “You learn everything that goes into putting on a performance. It's really professional.”

“This gives these kids a chance to really understand the atmosphere of a professional dance company,” Barnes says. “There needs to be something for these kids, because somebody needs to be doing something. When you get them in an environment like this, the whole world just seems to open up, and everything seems possible.”

But in a city bent on rubbing out that sense of infinite possibilities, the institute has come to symbolize a new, grimmer District—one that can barely afford to teach its kids to read, much less dance. This year, the institute's funding was slashed from $30,000 to less than $8,000. Lacking a production budget, the institute's enrollment dropped from 35 to 21.

“This isn't about handouts,” Barnes says in a voice meant to appeal to would-be contributors. “It's about helping people help themselves. It's clear that dance has literally saved peoples lives, people who could very easily fall into the traps out...”—he pauses, gazing at the street below—“out there.”

Barnes and his students are actually some of the lucky ones. Many arts programs have already died—swept under by the tide of the city's financial disaster. D.C. Artworks, the Dance Institute's parent organization, coordinates all the summer art programs for underprivileged 16- to 21-year-olds. Last year, Artworks offered nearly 60 different programs and introduced 1,400 boys and girls to architecture and music and graphic arts. This year, because of massive cuts by the City Council, Artworks eliminated more than half its programs.

“It's been devastating,” says Ulysses Garner, executive director of Artworks. “When the council did what they did, I don't think they had a true appreciation of what arts, community-based arts, mean to the soul of a city. I think the council is content with only the national aspect of art in this city, with the Kennedy Center...and in turn, it does not understand how art focused within the community can add to the true identity of the city.”

“The problems have hurt those [artists] who have been dependent on the city,” says Councilmember Linda Cropp. “It's sad, but what's needed is a retooling, a re-engineering of how those programs operate....They cannot be totally dependent on the government.”

Few Washingtonians would argue with Cropp or other city officials who have made the best of a Hobson's choice: Given the choice between firing police officers or funding a dance school, most folks vote for the cops.

“This isn't new,” Barnes concedes. “Dancers have always been at the bottom of the totem pole. That's sort of the way it is, and you have to be prepared for it. You have to know what it's like to fight.”

Barnes knows the ins and outs of the dancer's bout all too well. As a boy growing up near Seattle in the early 1970s, he followed his brother to ballet school. There, amid a sea of little white girls (they were the only blacks as well as the only boys), Barnes found his future. When he was 17, the Dance Theatre of Harlem came to town. He auditioned, and joined the troupe a year later. It took him to London and Spoleto and Hong Kong, and, eventually, to the District. It was here that he settled in 1984, seeking a reprieve from the dancer's life.

And it was here that Barnes found his new purpose: teaching dance to children, especially black children. A year after he started the institute, Barnes rejoined the Dance Theater of Harlem, but continued to run his summer program in D.C. When Barnes quit performing in 1994, he did so in hopes of raising enough money to open a year-round ballet school and company for the District's minority community.

“Right now there is no full-time [dance] school that is multiethnic and multicultural in this city, and there very much needs to be,” Barnes explains.

But with the dismantling of summer programs and virtually no immediate prospects for a full-time school, Barnes and his students have learned the lesson that all artists learn sooner or later: The dream and the dollar are inseparable.

“We're still trying to do a good job with the quality of the institution,” says Barnes, “in spite of not being funded. You just have to go forward, in the hope that you're going to get some support. That's all you can do.”

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