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On Stage

'Spirit of Kwanzaa,' A Tradition Itself

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page WE18

WITH THE EIGHT DAYS of Hanukah behind us, the 12 days of Christmas upon us and the seven days of Kwanzaa just over the horizon, it's a time for counting blessings as well as kindling festive lights and exchanging gifts.

Kwanzaa, explains dancer and choreographer Fabian Barnes, is a winter holiday celebration that draws on the agricultural ceremonies of Africa. "Of course," Barnes says, "we're here in America, not in Africa, so we had to really adapt those principles, which honor the ancestors, to our class struggles and our creativity."

Sasha Smith in the Dance Institute of Washington's "Spirit of Kwanzaa" program at the Kennedy Center. (Kennedy Center)

"The Spirit of Kwanzaa," which celebrates the holiday's principles with dance, music and spoken-word performances, comes to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the nine years since its inception, the two-night event has grown to fill the Kennedy Center's 2,500-seat Concert Hall with families who have made it a holiday tradition. This year's performers include students from Barnes's Dance Institute of Washington; his 12-member professional troupe, the Washington Reflections Dance Company; and a handful of out-of-town guests.

Kwanzaa, which begins on Sunday and lasts for seven days, is thoughtful and family-centered, focusing on seven communal principles deemed necessary for a productive life: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, faith, cooperative economics, purpose and creativity.

Barnes reflects on the unexpected success and longevity of his annual "Spirit of Kwanzaa" program, which had its start on the Millennium Stage in the Kennedy Center's Grand Foyer. "I'm not sure I did this consciously, but for me as an African American, it's involved putting something into the community that serves everyone but also reaches out to underserved children in the African American community."

In that sense, the event is very much like Barnes' s Dance Institute of Washington. A former soloist with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Barnes founded the institute in 1987 to provide at-risk and underprivileged kids in the Washington area with intensive dance instruction and arts outreach programs. In the coming months, the institute breaks ground on a new arts education center in Columbia Heights that will house a child development center as well as a dance studio.

Barnes notes the event's direct link to kujichagulia, Kwanzaa's principle of self-determination. Yet the program also reflects the entrepreneurial and artistic creativity within his community of dancers, musicians, poets and supporters. "Dance and music is a very fertile way to express creativity," he says. "It's not only true in African American culture, it's throughout all cultures."

This year, Barnes's Kwanzaa program highlights homegrown talent -- primarily because he has watched his dancers become strong enough to carry the show without relying on guest performers from New York. Sharing the stage with Barnes's students and dance company will be the vivacious Urban Nation H.I.P. H.O.P. Choir of Washington and the Last Poets, a trio of revolutionary writers who presaged today's rap. Among the evening's danced works, Christopher Huggins's "Many Rains Ago (Oluwa)" deftly blends ballet's grace and precision with the earth-focused movement vocabulary of African dance, while Daryl Spiers's "Breaking Through" finds its inspiration in Bobby McFerrin's gymnastic vocalizations.

In nine short years, "The Spirit of Kwanzaa" has become a tradition that, Barnes notes with mock trepidation, could someday rival the popularity of that wintertime dance behemoth, "The Nutcracker." He has observed children and families grow as they return to the event year after year. "I wanted something that could take root in the community and something that people could look forward to each year," he says. "And I think I've achieved that."

"THE SPIRIT OF KWANZAA" -- Tuesday and Wednesday at 8. Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 202-467-4600.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company