Positive Directions Through Dance
Young people living in some of Washington, DC’s most vulnerable communities are receiving what one observer has called “the opportunity of a lifetime.” Thanks to an inspired initiative of The Dance Institute of Washington (DIW), scores of underserved students are receiving professional dance training, at no charge, at the institute’s state-of-the-art facility in Columbia Heights.
The Positive Directions Through Dance program (PDTD) is the dream of Dance Institute Founder Fabian Barnes, who says he wanted to “give back what was so freely given” to him. As a promising 18-year-old dancer from an inner-city Seattle neighborhood, he had caught the eye of Dance Theatre of Harlem Co-Founder Arthur Mitchell, who offered Barnes an apprenticeship with the company. Mitchell soon promoted Barnes to a principal dancer, a post he held for 15 years. After Barnes went on to found The Dance Institute of Washington, he created the PDTD program to give underserved youth a similar opportunity to find a positive path.
The program recruits participants from affordable housing complexes, a Boys and Girls Club, and an early childhood development center near The Dance Institute’s soaring, light-filled facility in its highly diverse, newly redeveloping neighborhood. Students, who range in age from 4 to 18, take classes after school, on Saturdays, and during the summers in ballet, modern, hip-hop, Latin, and African dance. PDTD participants enroll in either DIW’s community program or its more rigorous pre-professional track. In addition, preteen and teenage students participate in weekly life skills workshops on such topics as nutrition, obesity prevention, conflict resolution, and financial literacy.
Barnes believes dance can be a powerful antidote to the negative influences confronting at-risk teens. “Dance gives you a respect for your physical instrument, your body,” he explains. “You’re encouraged to stay away from illegal substances, you’re taught to properly nourish your body, and you’re taught to carry yourself in a way that lets people know you take pride in yourself.” Those lessons stick: Alumni have gone on to perform with prestigious companies and on Broadway. But Barnes adds that the discipline, tenacity, and focus that dance instills will serve young people well in whatever endeavors they pursue in life.