Whether she's enchanting her audience with elegant pirouettes and graceful leaps or moving, grooving and dripping with sweat on a crowded disco floor, Edna Lee Long dances with style and gusto.
Teacher, performer and champion of dance education, Long also lives with style and gusto. When she is not pushing her students at the University of the District of Columbia for that extra bit of effort, she is arranging free dance concerts by her students in the city's public schools and parks. In the hours that remain, she sharpens her own skills by rehearsing with the 7-year-old Cole-Harrison Dance Company, which she co-directs with professional dancer Phillip Cole.
In an artistic field that demands the flexibility and strength of youth, Long, at 32, says she is eager to perform for a wider audience. As she makes her mark on the local dance scene, her feet sometimes itch for the floodlit stages of European capitals.
"My first love is no longer teaching, it's performing," she says. "Before, I just wanted to teach and be happy. Now, I want to go to Europe and be a performer."
She knows it won't be easy. But Long has many admirers.
"She is a dynamic dancer . . . the best I've seen in Washington. And she's very much involved in the community," says Beatrice Davis, a member of the Metropolitan Dance Association and director of the Davis Center, a private dance studio in Northwest. "A lot of people are just teaching now, but she is teaching and performing and doing both superbly."
Long's most recent performance, "Black Women I Know," at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre, raised about $4,000 for a Delta Sigma Theta Sorority scholarship fund for students majoring in the arts.
Critics gave Long's performance favorable reviews although one wrote that Long's concert "opened with promise, but trailed off into the sort of show-biz cliche that begged for strong choreography. . . ." Another writer described Long as the "radiant center of the evening" and wrote of "her versatile dancing . . . her sensuous presence . . . (and) her glamor."
The glamor and flash the audience sees offer only a glimpse of Long's kaleidoscopic personality. The sexy, colorful costumes, the evocative music and spell-binding body movements "provide you with a fantasy," Long says. "It's that part of me that I let you share. People shouldn't get hung up on false images. They should deal with me as I am."
To deal with the real Edna Lee Long, she says, is to deal with the many women inside her, each striving to leave her mark on the world. There's the egotistical, uncompromising perfectionist who says she wants to become a world-renowned dancer (a goal which she has kept on the back burner since choosing the more financially secure career of teaching). There's the demanding UDC dance instructor who says she is fed up with fighting school administrators for a stronger dance program. There's the woman who says that working with homosexual male dancers "eliminates the whole sex thing and allows us to go to a higher level as artists."
There's the traditional woman, who loves to go shopping at Bloomingdale's. There's the non-traditional woman, who has not cooked or cleanred house in years and who likes to lie in bed chomping on popcorn -- her favorite food. There's the woman who declares that "I'll never bear a child," yet is very family-oriented -- she demanded that her parents and her old school buddies get together and fly to her recent Kennedy Center concert. And there's the woman who visits dozens of D.C. public schools each year in order to bring the arts to inner-city youths.
"I'm fearful of losing my talent; if I don't share it, God will take it from me," Long says. Fear alone does not motivate her to extend herself to her community, however, but also a love for her people and a commitment to the arts -- especially, of course, to dancing.
"I want to develop more black dancers, but I also want to teach black youths how to appreciate what they see on stage. And the best way to do that is to teach them dance," Long says, sitting in a comfortable rocking chair and rubbing her taut, muscular feet together.
"I think that there's an awful lot of potential for the arts in the D.C. schools," she continues. "When we (and my UDC dance students) perform in the schools, we always have audience participation. The kids get on stage and they do some fantastic things always. But dance is something that they do instead of gym periodically or after school. It needs to become a part of the curriculum."
Long, a member of the D.C. Commission of the Arts Dance Panel, received an award last year from the African Heritage Center for her "outstanding contribution to the development of dance in D.C." Last week, Mayor Marion Barry presented her with a certificate "for brining happiness and joy to people's lives and in recognition of significant and valuable service" to the city.
Long was educated from the University of Illinois with BA and MA degrees in dance and accepted a job offer to establish a dance program at the old Federal City College (now a part of UDC) in 1971.But since then she has grown increasingly frustrated with teaching -- mainly she says because of continued administrative resistance at UDC to her pleas for greater financial support for her dance program.
"Ten years of saying the same thing. Ten years of being in a system that doesn't support what I'm doing has driven me up the wall," she says. "UDC should have a dance program (students currently can only minor in dance) and a top flight dance company, a bigger dance studio, better costumes, staff, sound system, p.r., lights. . . ." The studio she now uses, at 16th and Q streets NW, "has one set of mirrors and two sets of bars. That's inadequate," she says. "It should have mirrors all around the walls and it should be about the size of a basketball court."
Despite her frustrations, Long has steadily broadened her experience, performing and studying dance technique in the Cole-Harrison Dance Company and in New York, as well as in Canada, Haiti and the Soviet Union.
As Washington Star dance critic Anne Marie Welsh said in her review of Long's recent Kennedy Center solo debut, "This skilled, vital and very beautiful woman . . . demonstrates both the versatility and the charisma to carry off assignments far more ambitious than this one."
Cora Masters Wilds, a fellow UDC professor and a self-described "lover of the arts" who has followed Long for three years, says, "I think Edna's main obstacle is lack of professional production -- choreography, lighting, costuming, etc. -- and lack of exposure. Right now she's doing most of it herself, which takes away from her concentrating on her art form. I think she's as good or better than any performer I've seen.
"Making it in the arts is a matter of the breaks you get -- like playing on Broadway," says Wilds. "And if that break doesn't come soon, it may be too late for her because of her age."