For black dancers, the road to a professional career often has been blocked. But Edna Lee Long, director of the dance program at the University of the District of Columbia, hopes to break some of those barricades.
Five years ago, Long and Phillip Harrison Cole founded the Cole-Harrison Dance Company, an ensemble of eight black dancers, including Cole and Long.
"One of my goals is to help establish a top-quality black dance company in Washington," Long said. "The Cole-Harrison Dancers have taken steps in that direction. But there aren't enough inexpensive facilities to perform in, so young dance companies find it difficult to get notoriety."
Cole, a professional dancer and choreographer, and Long are co-directors of the company, which has performed at the Kennedy Center and showcased young black dancers at other performances and workshops in Washington, New York and other cities.
Recently, under the company's sponsorship, Long presented a one-woman dance show entitled "Women I Know." In the show, Long depicts through dance the feelings of black women - from a love-filled mother to a drug-user.
"The show expresses a need for more sensitivity to the inner feelings of black women by all people," Long said. "I hope to translate an emotional message about black male and female relationships by holding up for inspection the emotions and motivations of black women, which are not what they have been stereotyped to be.
"For example, black women have long been described as women of strength. But there has be**en little focus on their feelings of inadequacy, their fantasies and their natural drives to rise above any circumstances when the well-being of their families is at stake."
The show has been presented at the Last Hurrah Restaurant in Northwest Washington and at a one-day benefit sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. It is tentatively scheduled to be presented in Chicago in April.
Long grew up in Chicago. She credits her father, a policeman, and her mother, a factory worker, with opening the world of the arts to her.
"They provided my initial cultural experiences by sending me to dance concerts that came to Chicago; they paid for my ballet lessons; they sent me to modeling school; they created my sound interest in the arts."
Although she had no early ambition to be a dancer, she began studying dance when she was 6 years old.
"I was a very active child," she said, "so my parents enrolled me in ballet classes. I practiced a couple of hours a day a few days a week. But I still had as many other interests at that age as other children did.
"I stopped the ballet classes in elementary school. When I got in high school, I studied various forms of dance - modern, jazz - but I graduated from high school wanting to be a lawyer."
The desire to be a lawyer faded when she saw her freshman grades at the University of Illinois and after several professors, who saw her dance in class, urged her to change her major.
In 1971, she received her masters' degree in dance from the University of Illinois and came to Washington after accepting an offer from UDC (then known as Federal City College) to begin a dance program at the college. For Long, it was an ideal choice: Not only could she pursue her primary goal - teaching - but she was able to work as a professional dancer.
"I could never be just a dancer," she said, sitting Indian-fashion on top of a desk in an UDC hallway. "It would be too much of a struggle and it would not afford me my present salary or the flexibility that my schedule does to do other things.
"Besides, I enjoy teaching dance. It's healthful. And I'm creating an audience that will be able to speak intelligently about dance."
The 6-year-old program allows UDC students to minor in dance.
"Most of the 30 or so students in the program are interested in a career in the arts," Long said, "whether it's singing, acting or dancing. Some of our beginners in dance have had courses in dance but no extensive or consistent training."
In February, the entire Cole-Harrison ensemble performed a Holiday Inn in New York. Each week Long spends three to six hours, when her schedule permits, studying with Yuli Vzorvat of the Bolshoi School of Ballet in Bethesda. She also teaches four classes a week at UDC and rehearses about 12 hours a week with the Cole-Harrison Dancers. Recently, she returned to the University of Illinois as a guest artist for the Black Artists Festival there.
Long also has taken the opportunity to see two ballet schools which often are considered the premiere training grounds in classical dance. In 1975, under the sponsorship of New York University, she spent 10 days touring the Kirov and Bolshoi schools of ballet in Russia.
"The ballet in Russia is exquisite," she said."The stage is twice the size of any stage here, and since I got an opportunity to tour the countryside, go into their homes and realy see how they lived, I got a better understanding of what the stories in the ballets mean to them."
For Long, the work, the teaching and her studies reflect her passion for the dance.
"I intend to dance until I can no longer hold placement, my feet won't point or I get too tired too quicklY," she said.
Even then, she says, she will have her first love - teaching.