A multifaceted gem of dance education will soon shine from the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, thanks to world-celebrated dancer Dwana Smallwood. A longtime principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1995-2007) and often compared to the great Judith Jamison, Smallwood is the striking figure we saw in many magazine and transit ads. Leaping further on to the world stage in 2009, she served as architect of the dance program at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Not long before, she’d sat on Oprah’s couch and told America, “Dance is my oxygen.”
“The decision to leave the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was not an easy one,” Smallwood says. “I wanted to die there. But I’ve also always wanted to give back. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Working with the girls in South Africa I learned what my purpose was. My message grew wings.”
Although Smallwood arrived as artist-in-residence, she later created afterschool and mentorship programs, planned events and brought people from around the world to lecture and perform. She saw herself in the students and shared with them all she knew – from trusted instincts to hard-won lessons. Smallwood knows what if feels like to fly and she sought to share the magic of lift-off.
“They didn’t realize that dance would be that powerful, would allow them to tap into that truest part of themselves. Not everyone was going to be a dancer. But they could say, ‘I have been given the opportunity to learn what I was born to be. I have a method to tap in, to appropriate everything I have to give.”
In 2013, Smallwood returned home to birth the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center in her native Bedford-Stuyvesant. She believes positive community identity is enhanced through encouraging artistic activity in underserved neighborhoods.
“I am Isoke’s daughter,” says Smallwood, referring to the clear directives and example she was given as a child. “I have no choice but to pay back what I owe Brooklyn, what I owe Bedford-Stuyvesant. This neighborhood made me what I am. It was never just a crime-ridden place or a source of cheap real estate. I was able to study dance with the best, right here in this community at a very young age and I grew to be filled with pride and purpose.”
Smallwood was groomed at an early age to wield thunder and steal hearts. In addition to dancing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she’s made several TV appearances, including The Today Show, The Kennedy Center Honors and even Sesame Street. She was on the cover of Dance Magazine three times and was featured in Vibe, Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic and Girl Scout Magazine. It was only a matter of time before Vogue magazine proclaimed her “one of the greatest modern dancers” and in 2005 she was one of New York Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers.” In 2009, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award from Ile-Ase and earlier this February was among the first to be honored (along with NYC First lady Chirlane McRae and others), with the Bedford Stuyvesant Museum of African Art first annual Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award.
Now Smallwood walks the streets of her beloved birthplace and envisions using the arts to empower, to mold elite dancers capable of competing on the world stage. The mission is to inspire and facilitate young people’s aspirations through discipline, pride, determination, humility, respect and an appreciation for the arts. And once again, she’s started with girls – her Youth Ambassadors. Last summer, Smallwood worked with teens from the neighborhood over a six-week period, mentoring them and choreographing a performance for the Center’s groundbreaking ceremony last fall. The Center is due to open mid-April.
“This is another set of young women of color and they are dealing with what they are up against here,” she said. “There are so many challenges and they’re also thinking about boys, sexuality and beauty. I tell them, ‘Don’t walk in the world less than you were meant to be. You have no idea what power you’re holding. I want to show you just a bit of it. I don’t need to pour anything into you, just help to bring it out of you.’ ”
While the girls are helping to herald the Center’s call, it’s for sure that people of all ages will answer. The Center will offer classes for adults as well, including yoga, Pilates and other fitness instruction, and of course, dance. And there’s so much to learn! Some will love the propulsive articulation of African dance, with classes at all skill levels, the joyous abandon of Afro-Caribbean dance or the innovation of Afro-Fusion, which integrates styles such as Gumboot, Pantsula and Indlamu with Western contemporary movement. Others will relish the discipline and grace of Ballet, with its focus on alignment, refinement, body-sculpting and strength. Jazz dance will inspire those drawn to its dramatic energy, syncopation and theatricality.
Modern dance students will master floor work, fall and recovery, and learn to convey emotion. In Tap class they’ll develop the rhythm and improvisational skills to become percussive musicians. Some will favor the vitality, fluidity and complex footwork of House dance or the force, rhythm and high-velocity clicks, pops and locks of Hip Hop dance. There will be classes for true beginners, intermediate sessions and advanced classes. More than just a way in which she, personally, can give back, Dwana strongly believes that dance can be a tool for living.
“Dance allows people to block out the noise of the world that distracts us from finding our path. I see it as a prayer that helps people tap into and express the essence of who they were meant to be.”
Local community residents are powerfully proud of their dance legend and Smallwood is elated! She hopes people will spread the good word and visit the DSPAC’s website to learn more about her dream and how to take part in making it come true. She can’t wait to invite all to come, bear witness and celebrate when the Center opens and she gets to share her love, her inspiration, her oxygen.