In a sparkling new, sun-drenched dance studio just off the Gates Avenue stop of the J train in Brooklyn Dwana Smallwood leads a class of eager pre-teens, or “tweens” if you will, in putting together what will be a modern-dance routine. Smallwood uses different methods to connect with the various girls. Joking around, poking fun, literally getting down to eye level- whatever she must do to both communicate her own vision as well as draw out the girls’ personalities. If there is anything that illustrates the power and far-reaching effects of certain decisions, this is it.
At the tail end of her twelve year turn as principal dancer of the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Smallwood agreed to appear in a 2007 issue of Vogue magazine celebrating those who were at the top of their professions. Producers at the The Oprah Winfrey Show saw the issue and asked her to come on the show. Smallwood made the decision to do so and performed Ailey’s masterpiece inspired by and dedicated to his mother, “Cry”. For anyone to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it must be unarguably an exhilarating experience. For Smallwood, it was a singular experience in its own way. She says, “ After being on the show I kept thinking, how many people have I ever seen on television that looked like me? Dark skin, no hair, barefoot, modern dance, all of it. I searched and I looked and I don’t remember ever seeing that image. And I said, what this did for so many young people. So I wrote her a thank you letter.”
That thank you letter led to a request from Oprah that Smallwood lead a one-week workshop at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Smallwood agreed and recalls, “I did a workshop for a week. I taught all 320 kids. I sewed costumes. In one week I choreographed two pieces and a little presentation at the end. After that week she asked if I would come back and stay. And so that year turned into two years and that turned into ‘I can’t leave’ and that turned into ‘I’m not talking to you until the first graduating class leaves.’” Smallwood indeed ended up staying there from 2009 through 2013. In that time, she taught, developed the dance program, and went on to help direct other vital aspects of the administration and curriculum at the school.
While teaching there, she “learned how to give myself for real. I saw huge transformations in young women who had gone through far too many atrocities.” The program was also exceedingly beneficial to Smallwood in other ways. “It was rewarding and then some because [Oprah] believed in all the gifts I had. I wasn’t just a dancer, I was a businesswoman. I was an organizer- a leader. I was so many things.” The experience rekindled something in Smallwood; a mere spark flickering at the back of her mind.” She says that, “I always knew I wanted to have something that dealt with young women. I wanted a facility. I wanted it to be a home.” She fleetingly considered opening a facility back in her hometown of Brooklyn in Bedford Stuyvesant, where she was raised. Still, the idea remained just a spark until Oprah herself fanned the flame. Winfrey asked Smallwood if she wanted to open her own dance school and offered to help fund its development. At first Smallwood hesitated. The turning point came after she read yet another “District Needs Report” revealing the dearth of cultural institutions in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. She explains that the district needs report is basically a document the local government puts together “that they send to the city and state to say, ‘this is what our area needs’”. It seemed as if every year, the same needs were listed but nothing was ever done about it. At least not for Bed-Stuy. She says, “I looked at Fort Greene, I’m like you’re gonna saturate that area with six, seven, eight centers and facilities? And so what about us? Don’t we deserve beautiful facilities? Don’t we deserve art spaces and places for our children and the artists who are coming out of Bed-Stuy?” Smallwood made another decision. The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center opened its doors in early 2014 in Bedford Stuyvesant.
DSPAC offers classes such as Ballet, Salsa, Gyrokinesis, Afro-Yoga, Modern, Tap, Hip-Hop and an interesting class called “Gumboot”, imported from South Africa. The school website describes it as, “An exciting workout, filled with rapid footwork, pulsating rhythms, and vocal expression. Learn the foot-stomping, boot-slapping dance of the South African miners, men and women who created the world-popular Gumboot dance in the gold mines of South Africa.”. There are programs for younger children and teens, where scholarships are available based on need. There are also classes that are open to adults such as adult beginner Ballet. The center also has a reading program centered around its rapidly growing library- a focal point in the cozy reception area. Smallwood explains that, “we have a reading program where kids read out loud to the young children. And it’s all relevant to dance. It’s so nice to see the kids when they come in early will go to the shelf and pull out a book. I need them to exercise both sides of the brain. You have a thinking side, you have the artistic side, let’s put it all together and become thinking artists. Artists that go after degrees or have PhD’s.” No doubt also artists who also make decisions that impact the world.
This originally appeared in New York Amsterdam News