Almost immediately after taking up dancing as a little girl, Amanee Blake knew she wanted to open a studio of her own. She would tell her mom, her friends — she even wrote it in her diary at age 7.
Now, almost two decades later, she has done just that. But the dance studio is about more than a business. It aims to provide an outlet, and an opportunity for growth, for children who might not necessarily get a chance to participate in the arts.
This year, Blake opened Savoire Faire of the Arts Academy at the Patsy Hartsfield community center in Carver Terrace in Northeast Washington. She offers a dance class on Saturdays aimed at developing young people in the surrounding neighborhoods through the arts and mentorship.
It’s a small operation: The class of eight girls and no boys, ranging in age from 3 to 17, rehearses in a classroom, after pushing aside the chairs and tables. The walls of the studio are decorated with paper rockets hanging from the ceiling and colorful paintings from the young kids who share the space.
The goal of the class is not necessarily to make dancers, Blake said, but to make better people.
“If dancing is your niche, great — we’ll help you progress with it,” she said. “If it’s not, at least you learned discipline, and you have the skills and tools to go through life.”
The studio has opened during a year of increased violence in the city. Both the number of homicides and incidents of other violent crime are statistically higher than last year. Savoire Faire is trying to offer kids in the neighborhood both a safe space and constructive options.
“In a world . . . that is full and inundated with so much negativity and things of that nature, it’s so refreshing to know that we have a young woman who wants to give back to her community in the way that she’s doing,” said the Rev. Melvin Robinson of Master’s Child Worship Center in District Heights. He is also Blake’s godfather.
When Blake was a young girl, her mother put her in a dance class held upstairs from the apartment where she and her family lived in Okinawa, Japan. (Her father was stationed there as part of his military service.) The family returned to the United States when she was in middle school, and Blake continued to pursue dance.
She would often visit an aunt who lived in Carver Terrace, just a block from Patsy Hartfield. Blake noticed that there wasn’t much for children to do in the neighborhood. After she finished college, where she minored in dance, Blake said the head of the community center there asked her to open a dance studio.
Blake is now 26 and a semester away from receiving her MBA from Trinity Washington University in Washington. She also volunteers at her church while combining her passion for dance with her values of public service.
“When you’re dancing, you are releasing everything,” she said. “I feel so free when I’m dancing, and I feel so like myself because it’s like you don’t have anything else to worry about. It’s just you and the floor and the music and you’re moving — that’s it.”
Robinson said that as Blake tries to recruit more children to the program, it’s important to get the word out so parents know there are options for kids.
“Whatever it takes, let’s make sure that we do not miss an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life,” he said.
Blake charges $125 for a month of dance classes. She has one parent who gets up at 6:20 a.m. to make the 9 a.m. class. And she is sometimes called upon by parents to help with transportation, provide tutoring on homework or just be able to give a mom a couple hours free on a Saturday.
But it’s worth it, both for the release that comes with dancing and the support that comes from learning something new.
One student enrolled in Blake’s class is Cashay Warren. She has been working with Blake since she was 7. Now 13, Cashay has real potential, Blake said, pointing out that the teenager is uninhibited in her movements and a disciplined worker.
Cashay has taken classes at other studios but said she enjoys the close-knit atmosphere of Savoire Faire, and the fact that she can get more individual attention there than in a large class.
“When I dance, I feel like nobody’s around, and it’s just something that I do to, like, release emotion, and it’s very fun too,” Cashay said. “It’s my life.”
Her mother, Ronetta Clarke, said she’s tried to get all three of her children involved in something they’ll enjoy. She said Cashay, already a strong girl, draws much of her confidence from dancing. She said she likes the lessons that dance teaches her daughter, seeing the discipline she’s learning translate into her schoolwork and elsewhere.
“I’m really big on [my kids] understanding that everybody doesn’t have the opportunities that you have, everybody doesn’t have the support that you have,” Clarke said. “I just really want them to just be open to helping other people, it can’t always be about yourself.”