A dance class glides across the stage of the new theater inside the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a graceful confidence in the smiles of the performers. You can ask them how it feels to do "pointe work," as toe dancing is called, on a surface that flexes with each leap, instead of on a buckling and splintered gymnasium floor.
But nimble body language speaks louder than words, and the students eagerly fill their new space with a creative energy that knows no bounds.
After two years without an auditorium for general assemblies, let alone for performances, the Ellington school's plush, Gay Nineties-style theater will be dedicated at 8 p.m. Friday at 3500 R St. NW, in Georgetown. For the Washington area arts community, this means that groups that cannot afford to book such theaters as the Kennedy Center will have a less expensive alternative with the quality of the Opera House. But the real beneficiaries are the students, who have been electrified by the school's rags-to-riches transformation.
The 800-seat theater, which includes an orchestra pit that can be raised and lowered hydraulically, is the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar effort to transform the worn-out buildings of the defunct Western High School into the kind of performing arts learning center that the Ellington School was supposed to be when it opened in 1973.
Before renovation work began two years ago, students performed in an auditorium with acoustics so poor that it was impossible to hear the various musical families of their orchestra. Dancers sometimes injured themselves on the pockmarked stage floor. Theatrical soliloquies had to be performed with a shell as a backdrop, to project sound into the audience.
There is no question that developing artistic temperaments were sullied by this apparent neglect. But now that has changed.
Maria Eldridge, a 15-year-old dance student and daughter of the principal, summed up the feelings of other students as she twirled her hands and shifted from foot to foot with excitement over the new facility. She had showed up for classes half an hour early.
"I just can't wait to dance," she said. "The desire is just building up in me. The new colors, the rich texture of the theater, give me the taste of being a professional."
For performing arts students, who have labored in church basements and practiced outdoors, the professional quality of their new theater has created an atmosphere often replicated in the television series "Fame." They hang around the school long after classes, talking technique, looking for ways just to be near the new equipment.
"They are simply thrilled," said Maurice Eldridge, the school's principal. "Students are making requests to hold classes in the theater, doing whatever they can to get inside. One group just goes in and sits in reverence on the stage. I was about to make a rule that no student would be allowed in without supervision. But I have been deeply impressed with their orderliness."
These days, students are working furiously to prepare the school for the dedication ceremony, hanging lights and making decorations. A new club, called the "E Club," recently was formed with the goal of instilling in students a standard of good behavior, especially inside the theater.
"Morale is so high -- a complete turnaround," said Ernest Mercer, a 16-year-old theater student, gesturing with his hands the way he does when performing "Hamlet."
"This makes me feel that there is nothing I can't do," he said. "I can be what I want to be."
Indeed, to watch as the school prepares to dedicate this theater is to witness a rebirth of passion and purpose that gives new meaning to Arthur Miller's precept that "the stage is the place of ideas, for philosophies, for the most intense discussion of man's fate."
And for the students of Ellington High, the stage has been set for their future.