After Stint Running Dance Program at Oprah’s Girls School Dwana Smallwood Opens School in Brooklyn

Dwana Smallwood teaching class at her school. Photo Nadine Matthews
Dwana Smallwood teaching class at her school. Photo Nadine Matthews

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

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New Documentary Strike a Pose Revisits Madonna’s Classic Concert Film Truth or Dare

BlondeAmbitionDancersGroup

Chemistry is everything. In the now classic concert film Truth or Dare, Madonna proved she was savvy enough, even at the relatively young age of thirty-two to put together and successfully lead a team of dancers who would perform with her during her iconic Blonde Ambition tour. One of the films that screened at the at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Strike A Pose, pulls the curtain back on the Blonde Ambition tour and Truth or Dare and gives us a three dimensional look at the backup dancers who helped Madonna’s star to rise even more. Madonna and those dancers brought to the fore many of the dance genres from the underground dance scene of that era of which Voguing became the most prominent in the public consciousness. What emerges from the documentary is that a certain fellowship or brotherhood formed between the dancers. The type of bond that is usually the result of people going through larger than life experiences together.

 

As one of the documentary’s directors Reijer Swaan described in a recent roundtable discussion, Strike A Pose is, “Like a ‘where are they now’ because they impacted so many people.” The film is a revisiting and a reunion. It carries the audience twenty-five years back in time to the spectacle of the  Blonde Ambition tour and the eye-opening and titillating Truth or Dare documentary. A time when Madonna’s star was at its zenith and the public’s attitude toward homosexuality was much, much less enlightened than they are today. One of the implicit arguments at the heart of Strike a Pose is that the seven dancers as well as Madonna herself unwittingly took on the burden of challenging the public to see the world in which they lived in all its glorious diversity- racial as well as with regard to gender and sexual orientation. All of the dancers were men of color and all except one, Oliver Crumes were gay. Ironically though, Crumes was and still is the most flamboyant of the bunch. Though his hair is no longer platinum blonde, he sports striking silver framed sunglasses and shows off his vast sneaker collection (which includes pink Adidas) in Strike A Pose. If one were going to choose ambassadors to spread this particular message, Madonna had the enviable ability to choose just the right group of people who were both attractive enough on the outside and charismatic enough to change attitudes and inspire courage by seemingly simply being themselves. She also had the discipline and will to lead a group of extremely young, extremely attractive, extremely talented men. Luis explains that, “She led by example. We had her at the time she was going from rubber bracelets and lace skirts to couture costumes from Gaultier so her focus was laser sharp so we took that on as well. I mean we wanted a fantastic product as much as she did. Did we kind of get that from her? Yes, because she led by example.”

 

Kevin Stea, Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Carlton Wilborn, and Jose Xtravaganza charm the viewer in Strike a Pose the same way that they did in Truth or Dare albeit with the gravitas that comes with age and experience. “There’s a real depth and seriousness about who we are that it’s really nice to to feel people acknowledge that.” Wilborn explained about the newest documentary. Noticeably missing is Gabriel Trupin, one half of the couple who performed THE KISS in Truth or Dare. He passed away in 1995. The dancers also acknowledge that Madonna was unique in allowing them to shine as dancers in a world where despite the amount of time, effort, and discipline that dancers put in and the value that they add to productions, they are almost invariably shunted into the background. Camacho speculated that Madonna “was not that insecure. I think that a lot of artists don’t do that because of their insecurities but she just focused on picking good talent and putting it all together.” They all credit Strike a Pose with carrying on that theme of celebrating dancers although the directors readily acknowledge that was not their primary intent. Said Wilborn, “This is making a big statement for dancers and dance. I’m a dancer and I’ve been waiting to hear stories of dancers.”

 

For Strike a Pose’s Dutch directors Ester Gould and Reija Swaan and many who viewed Truth or Dare so many years ago, Truth or Dare represented something else as well. Reija explains “The film showed you could be gay and happy” at at time when media tended to pathologize homosexuality itself and depict homosexuals as tortured souls. “Here they were having fun and being themselves.” But Strike a Pose also highlights the fact that enlightenment comes in stages and is an imperfect  and somewhat fraught process; especially for those without the type of power that someone like Madonna has. Truth or Dare positioned these men as having transcended the shame about their sexuality that society put on them but that was in fact not the full truth. Although Luis, Jose, and Carlton had been out and proud for some time, Strike A Pose reveals that one of the most famous scenes in Truth or Dare (when they are in fact playing the game Truth or Dare) where the dancers Gabriel Trupin and Salim “Slam” Gauwloos french kiss, Trupin felt coerced into doing it and was unaware it would be used in the widely released film. Trupin’s mother appears in the Strike a Pose and sadly tells the audience “he wasn’t ready to come out to the world as a gay man.” Gauwloos at the time was out but still not fully comfortable with such a public display since his father remained disapproving. Trupin, Crumes and Stea sued Madonna in 1992 for invasion of privacy saying they did not give permission to shoot the off-stage scenes.
Strike A Pose reveals Trupin was not the only one with something to hide and that his sexuality wasn’t the only thing bothering him. It turns out that he and two other dancers were also HIV positive although no one knew at the time. Carlton Wilborn was one of them and eventually disclosed his HIV status. Salim Gauwloos’ HIV status was actually disclosed for the very first time during the making of Strike a Pose after his keeping it a secret from everyone except his mother for over twenty-five years. Said Gauwloos, “Me coming out about my HIV status it feels liberating and I always wanted to do it but it was never the right time and Reija and Ester came along and it was the right time to do it and to hopefully inspire again more people.” For Wilborn disclosing in so public a manner as a documentary film has been a blessing. He explains, “What’s amazing about this right now is for myself the irony because I was also diagnosed in 1985, that the thing I thought I needed to keep secret and wouldn’t allow me to have a rich and prosperous life is exactly the communication that’s allowing me to soar in my career because of what Ester and Reijer have created; bigger than I ever had before. We think we’re crippled by whatever. The way that they have presented us, celebrates us because of that.”

Best Dance Ever!

"Tik-Toc" by Kesha choreographed by Eddie Villanueva
“Tik-Toc” by Kesha choreographed by Eddie Villanueva
I have a confession to make… I once left work early in order to make it to a dance class that I usually would not be able to make. Why? Well that week we were doing a routine that I really, really, really liked! It was a few years ago and the song itself that we were doing was pretty popular. It was Kesha’s Tik-Toc. Although I wasn’t initially on the Tik-toc bandwagon, just because of the song itself or because everyone else seemed to like it, after doing the routine, I got into it. Yes, the tune was catchy, but there was more to it. The choreography was challenging and cute, the lyrics of the song were evocative and escapist, the beat just sort of carried the listener along, and the make-up of the class at that time was just really cool. Although there is usually a core group of people in classes, many tend to come and go. We had a sort of “group chemistry” at that particular point. I suppose perhaps it was probably also simply a good week for me after an unfortunate succession of really bad ones but at this point, that is pure speculation. Anyway, I found the routine online and wanted to post it.

Here is the youtube link-

Although this post and associated posts on Facebook etc. will be called best routine ever, don’t rack your brain. I just want you to come up with the routine that strikes you as having been just a really great experience in the past year so. So tell me, what has been the most memorable routine that you’ve done in the past few years and why? Did you just like the song a lot or was there something in particular about the class at the time or technique that was taught? If you have video of the routine, please post to my Facebook page Recreational Dancers!

Misty Copeland’s New Commercial for Under Armour

copelandSo Misty Copeland’s commercial for Under Armour is the buzz this week. The commercial featuring Copeland who is the first Black soloist for American Ballet Theater, concludes with the copy “I will what I want”. The commercial is somewhat autobiographical since Copeland is not only Black, but started dancing at the age of thirteen, which is very late in ballet terms. With Copeland in motion on-screen, there is a voiceover of a thirteen year-old girl reading a rejection letter from a ballet school. At the end of the letter, it states that she has the “wrong body” for ballet. This message resonates on multiple levels. Women- and women of color in particular- are constantly being told that they have the wrong bodies. The wrong bodies for a particular clothing style or haircut or, perhaps most painfully, the wrong body for a certain man. Ballet is not the only dance genre to send this type of message. Although so-called “street style” dances tend to be more inclusive from an ethnic and racial standpoint, there is absolutely a feeling that to be above a certain weight or to have a certain type of hair texture is a no-no if you want to perform at the highest levels. Dances traditionally performed in gentlemen’s clubs (and now routinely taught at gyms and studios everyday) such as lap dancing, pole dancing, and burlesque also carry that same stigma. If you are what they call “curvy”, it can take a lot of courage just to take these types of classes on a casual basis let alone try to get jobs in those industries.

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The attitude carries over into other parts of life as well. On a recent episode of the morning talk show, “The Talk”, one of the hosts Cheryl Underwood, was taken to task by fans for the lip-lock she and guest John Stamos engaged in on the show. Underwood, has a running gag on the show where she crushes on Stamos. When he appeared as a guest, he gamely played along all in the name of fun. Underwood, who is at least a size ten, was reminded over social media in no uncertain terms that men like Stamos do not go for women of her size. Women also have a tendency to resent it when someone they deem not skinny enough or simply not pretty enough, dares to dress or hold herself in a way that emphasizes her femininity. The cost to that woman is often a certain level of castigation– a reminder that she has stepped out of her proverbial “place”. So yes, if you want to be who you feel you were born to be, you must exercise a tremendous amount of will and determination. Kudos to Copeland and those like her who dare to do so.

10 Great Articles About the Dance World Outside the Studio

Usually, I like to focus on the more practical aspects of dance. That is, I like to share with you the news about our local dance instructors, or cool dance gear, new dance classes, or cheap/free dance classes. However, I realize that every so often, we also need a real “culture fix”. What I have learned from taking dance classes over the years is that dancers tend to have a wide spectrum of genres that they are interested in. B-boys and B-girls like to go to the ballet (heck some b-boys and b-girls started out as ballet dancers!), House dancers like to find out what is happening on the modern dance scene, ballerinas like to know about what is going on on the club dance scene etc. The same can also be said of dance history. There is a great thirst for knowledge just about the history of the various dance genres which sometimes gets overlooked in the hustle and bustle of learning dance routines in the studio. So here, I have assembled a group of links to articles that I believe go toward rounding out the dance experience by opening a window into the dance culture across genres. Enjoy!

Photo Sebastian Rich
Photo Sebastian Rich

This article focuses on the work of photographer Sebastian Rich. Rich started out as a war photographer but has branched out into dance photography- shooting everything from ballet to pole dancing…

Soothing The Soul – The Dance Photography Of Conflict Photographer Sebastian Rich

The following article focuses in the fusion of high fashion and dance at the upcoming New York City Ballet Fall gala.

City Ballet Plans a Fashionable Fall Gala

Ever heard of Bounden? This is where dance literally meets digital as part of a dancing game that demands that you NOT put your smartphone down. Read all about it!

Hold On to Your Phone! Bounden Entangles Gamers in a Complex Dance Duet

Gia Kourlas’ review of Dance Theater of Harlem’s program at the recent Celebrate Brooklyn! festival.

In a Swirl of Limbs, a Bird Takes Flight Dance Theater of Harlem Comes to Celebrate Brooklyn!

A peek inside the world of the dance conductor!

They Help You Listen With Your Eyes Dance Conductors Keep Watch While They Keep Tempo

Say it Ain’t So… When dancing is a crime…

On Subway, Flying Feet Can Lead to Handcuffs

Photo Victor J. Blue
Photo Victor J. Blue

I personally wanted to make sure I added this. It is not an article, but a mention of one of Time Out magazine’s critics’ picks- Pilobolous dance theater. Eriko Jimbo, currently one of the members of Pilobolous, will be leaving the company after this season so these are her final performances. I have seen Eriko “perform” on the underground house dance scene and not only is she incredibly beautiful, she is a wonder to watch as a dancer. It is worth the price of the ticket just to see her dance. Catch her while you can!

Pilobolus Dance

Photo Pilobolus Dance Theater
Photo Pilobolus Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater announces highlights of its upcoming season which will include an homage to folk singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Odetta.

Ailey American Dance Theater to Offer Odetta Tribute

Books for the kid in your life who wants to dance! Two reviews in Wall Street Journal.

Children’s Books: Dancing Lessons

An illustration from "Rupert Can Dance"
An illustration from “Rupert Can Dance”
Safi Thomas and Staff
Safi Thomas(2nd fr. left), Director Hip Hop dance Conservatory and his staff.
Photo Archives of Hip Hop Dance Conservatory

Groupon for the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory’s production “The Blame Game: Original Sin”. Finally, due to people like Safi Thomas, Founder and Director of the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory, Hip-Hop dance is starting to be treated as and recognized for, the discipline that it is. Please buy a ticket, see theperformance and then go check out the Friday night open class offered by the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory. It won’t be exactly what you expect but I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

The BLAME Game: Original Sin” by The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory on Saturday, August 16 (Up to 51% Off)

Dancehall Days

dancehall reggae dance instructors new york city tavia n tamara
Tavia N Tamara
Photo Brukwine.com

One of the most popular songs  of this Summer so far is the sweet and catchy tune “Rude” by the Canadian band Magic. It got me thinking that I need to brush up on my reggae style for those parties (even the parties of one that take place in my living room) where this and other reggae music might be coming through the speakers. I caught a glimpse of some videos featuring reggae not so long ago and realized that reggae dance is not exactly the same as it used to be. 

Reggae, like everything else, has evolved. In fact, you are very likely to hear reggae now referred to as dancehall although the two are different versions of the same type of music. Dancehall is a sub-genre of reggae so, although dancehall is reggae, reggae is not dancehall.  Dancehall is a faster, somewhat naughtier version of reggae. However,  dance classes that teach reggae technique, tend now, to be named dancehall. Got it?The fundamentals remain the same, however, and what you learn in dancehall class can definitely be applied to all types of reggae music.

hannah herbertson
Hannah Herbertson, Photo Courtesy Brooklynexposed.com

So, now that you have decided to take the classes, where do you go? Hannah Herbertson, in my opinion, is one of the best dancehall teachers in New York City. Born in S. Korea and raised in Sweden, Hannah brings an international perspective to dancehall. She has traveled all over the world including trips to Jamaica numerous times to soak up reggae culture from its roots. Her respect for that culture is evident in the way that she conducts her classes. Hannah also has that “Irie” vibe that makes learning what can be a challenging technique very laid back and stress- free. She offers classes at the Bed Stuy YMCA as well as one-on one and small group classes.

Heather Fay Photo rateyourburn.com
Heather Fay
Photo rateyourburn.com

Heather Fay, is also a fantastic teacher. Her page describes Pon De Flo as, a Caribbean Reggae dance-based fitness class that incorporates high energy, easy to follow choreography and intense body strengthening moves.” A former instructor at New York Sports Clubs, Heather now teaches at her signature “Pon de Flo” style at Crunch Fitness. She also offers classes to the general  at DANY. Heather’s brilliant smile and energy makes her classes effective as well as enjoyable. 

Tavia N Tamara at Broadway Dance Center is yet another option. Yes, here you get two instructors for the price of one! These two bring the sexy as well as lots of technique! They also offer dancehall technique at Crunch Fitness in their signature “Brukwine” classes. They also conduct Brukwine in Heels (yes, it is exactly what it sounds like- you do the routine in high heels) classes for those of you really want to take on a challenge! Then there is Yaminah Logohn who I have heard great things about who teaches Dancehall at PMT Studios at Union Square.

Yamina Legohn Photo Yaminah Legohn
Yamina Legohn
Photo Yaminah Legohn

Finally, if you want to mix it up a little, classes at all the popular gym chains offer Zumba classes which inevitable include a section or two to reggae or dance hall. So there you have it- all prepared to get down to any reggae tune that comes your way this Summer!

Location, Location, Location: New Dance Studio Makes It Even Easier For Some Dance Lovers To Get To Class

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photo- Robyn Baltzer

Even though many  recreational dancers like to take most of their classes at the gym, we also love exploring new opportunities to take dance classes in different settings. If you are one of them (and I know you are), have I got news for you! There is a brand, spanking new dance studio that opened up this week in New York City.  The Spot Dance Center opened its doors this week.

It is a nice mix of familiar instructors from Broadway Dance Center and Peridance with some new but equally talented faces. The offerings reflect the make-up of the staff with a lot of club style and street style genres with which we are familiar such as Locking, Breaking, and Waacking and some interesting newer styles- i.e.Boogie Fusion and New Style Hustle.

What is of note as well about this new facility is that it is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, making it easier for some of us dance fans to get to and from class. Many Brooklyn-based dance lovers will also d=find the location to their liking as well as it is just over the bridge! Apart from that, it is always great to just have plain old more choices of dance classes in the city each day.

 

Check out this new spot and tell us what you think!