The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In this D.C. ballet studio, a delicate dance toward equity happens every day

Ballet’s diversity problem isn’t new, but some of the promises to fix it are. The Dance Institute of Washington has seen what happens when words accompany action.

The mission of the Dance Institute of Washington is to improve the lives of underserved children in the District. (Dance Institute of Washington)
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Kahina Haynes is thinking about the girl who put a boy’s phone in the microwave.

She is now a young woman who attends Spelman College, but when that outburst occurred, she had just started studying ballet at the Dance Institute of Washington. The phone was ruined, emotions were running hot and the staff had to decide how to handle the situation.

“That would have been grounds for expulsion at another school,” Haynes, who is the executive director of the institute, tells me as we talk about the girl and ballet and what it’s going to take to really diversify the centuries-old art form.

As a matter of practice, when children show up unprepared or are disruptive, most ballet studios send them home, says Haynes, who is a dancer-turned-educator. But pushing out students would run counter to the institute’s mission, which is to pull in underserved children in D.C. and provide them with the support and training they need to find success in professional ballet and the dance industry.

The majority of young people who come to the institute’s Columbia Heights studio are Black, Latino or Indigenous. Some are experiencing housing instability and some are struggling in school. Some live with their parents and some are in foster care. Most require financial aid.

For students who act out, as the girl in that microwave incident learned, the institute offers a “cool down” room. There, students can get the space and time they need to calm and compose themselves. The staff also offers wraparound services that include providing food and access to therapy.

“There’s a difference between being an organization that sees the value in being more inclusive, more diverse and more equitable versus being an organization that is committed to advancing equity,” Haynes says. “They are not the same thing.”

Haynes doesn’t say that in a way that sounds boastful about the institute. She says it in a way that sounds hopeful about a field she cares about. She says it to help me understand that the conversations taking place right now across the country about diversifying ballet are just that — talk — if they don’t accompany thoughtful changes.

This year, the institute joined Canada’s National Ballet School and Washingtonian Lauri Fitz-Pegado in hosting a virtual symposium titled “Addressing Racialization in Ballet.” The slogan of the inaugural event: Four days, two countries, one shared purpose.

The symposium, which spanned two weekends and ended Saturday, comes at a time when the country’s racial reckoning has caused many industries to look inward and make promises to improve diversity. If that has happened in your workplace, then you know what Haynes does: Words are cheap. Creating diverse spaces takes investment. It takes stripping away the excuses and figuring out why doors remain closed or revolving for some segments of the population and not others — and then searching for door stoppers.

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At the institute, a delicate dance toward equity takes place every day that classes are held and it has for decades. The institute, which was founded in 1987 by the late Fabian Barnes, is a nonprofit that depends on grants, donations, sponsorship and government subsidies for funding. Some students come to the studio after hearing about it and other are referred by city agencies, such as Child and Family Services, and the staff often provides services that go beyond teaching young people how to move their bodies.

When the pandemic began, the studio closed its doors like other businesses and nonprofits throughout the city. But students kept showing up. The staff finally figured out that they depended on the food that was provided each day. After that, the studio started offering prepared meals.

Another time, when a girl stopped coming to class, the staff looked into why. They discovered she was encountering a serious safety issue on her way from school to the studio. The studio helped that child and later received a grant that allowed it to become a “safe passage” spot for other students.

Kaitwan Jackson, 23, recalls the first time he walked into the studio. He was 16, living near Union Station and figured he’d take a class to improve his flexibility for track.

“I was this kid that had no awareness of dance, no awareness of my body really outside of sports,” he says. “It was my first time dancing, and this institution that had never known me before, took a chance on me.”

He says the institute offered him a scholarship to participate in a summer program that involved dancing five days a week for up to eight hours a day.

“It was very intense and I loved it,” he says. “Honestly, I think what made me stay was that connection art has to our emotions and our humanity. Growing up, I was never a kid to express myself in formal ways. So when I was able to dance, I was like, ‘Wow, I really found a way to connect with all these emotions I feel but am not quite comfortable sharing.’”

Jackson is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California and is apprenticing with one dance company and working with another.

“It saddens me so much because you see these students on one side of L.A. County who have all this access, whether it be financially or just knowledgeably, about the arts,” he says. “And then you see so many other students aren’t even aware of the performing arts or dance specifically.”

When he left D.C. for college, he initially danced with predominantly White institutions and often found he was the only Black man in the room. And if ever there were two, he says, it felt like people were comparing them, forcing an unsaid competition.

“I can see change happening, but with most change of this magnitude, it does come slowly,” he says. He says he feels optimistic knowing there are studios across the world like the Dance Institute of Washington that are “catering their programs toward students who have been denied access” and offering lessons “at such a high caliber that students can say, ‘Oh, maybe I will be able to go on to have a professional career.'”

When I tell him about the girl and the microwave, he recalls an incident that occurred when he was a student.

“I was one of those kids, honestly,” he says. “In the beginning I just had a lot of emotions within me and I wasn’t quite able to contain them sometimes. So, one day, I was taking a nap and someone woke me up and it just enraged me so much.”

He describes his response toward the other students as loud and disruptive.

“Rather than saying you need to go home, it became a moment of talking to each other,” he says. He recalls the instructor who witnessed the encounter sitting with him and the other student and saying, “This a community environment, Kaitwan. She is like your little sister. You’re like her big brother. Y’all exist in this space together to support one another.”

The lesson he learned that day had nothing to do with dance, but it has stuck with him and he has stuck with ballet.