Kim Pope, 9, wants to become a "singer and a dancer" like the performers on her favorite television show, "Fame." Nicole Gould, 8, has ambitions "to be a producer when I grow up."
For both girls, and some 2,000 other District youngsters, the city now has a local version of the coveted "Fame" experience. It is the Neighborhood Academy of Arts, which was opened last week by the D.C. Department of Recreation.
The academy, the first of its kind in the nation according to department officials, is designed to introduce children to fine arts as leisure-time activity, regardless of their artistic ability.
In addition to being taught dance, drama, music, visual arts, stagecraft and costuming, the youths will have an opportunity to see professional performances and workshops and to develop an appreciation of the arts.
Funded by a grant from the National Park Service in cooperation with the Recreation Department, the classes and other activities are provided free to youths 5 to 21 at 16 locations around the city. Residence in the District is the only other requirement for enrollment, which is now under way through the Recreation Department.
At the end of its first year, the academy hopes to have organized a youth orchestra and children's theater group to showcase young talents before the public.
"We feel that if you can have basketball on every street corner and develop ballplayers, the same thing can be done with the arts," said Alexis H. Roberson, acting director of the Recreation Department, who started the academy.
"When I came to the department two years ago I realized the programs had to be expanded for those children without athletic ability. The managers and I brainstormed and came up with the arts program," she said.
Roberson said the department is taking an innovative approach to influence the way young people spend leisure time. The academy will be a starting point, and other institutions, such as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the D.C. Commission for the Arts, must take responsibility for further development of gifted students, she said.
"We are talking about the development of the whole person, building self-esteem and improving communication skills. We want young people to learn to enjoy the arts and to evaluate plays intelligently," said Roberson.
Larry Brown, the Recreation Department's director of community information, said the program aims to "replenish the supply of Mahalia Jacksons and Duke Ellingtons from the wealth of undiscovered talent in the District. We must endeavor to harness their energy and channel it in the right direction," he said.
The purpose is not to train professional actors but to "enhance the perspective of young people with regard to art," added Jearline Williams, executive assistant for cultural activities.
"Right now our major priority is getting the program solid," Williams said. "We are using the arts as an education tool to advance an understanding of opera and ballet. This opens up all sorts of avenues for the kids to learn self-expression. Acquisition of verbal and nonverbal communication is particularly important for inner-city children."
Raymond Gray, music coordinator for the academy, hopes that it will produce more successful groups like the local Ambassador's Band, which he nurtured and which has helped develop the talents of nearly 300 performers. Many of the band's former members are professional musicians and music teachers in the city's public schools, while others have gone on to play with such notables as Count Basie and jazz musician Donald Byrd.
Dance instructor Johnny Wade, who was teaching aspiring artists Kim Pope and Nicole Gould the basics of tap dancing in a class at Takoma Elementary School last week, said he expects the academy to "be a testing ground for kids at an early age."