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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Open Letter from Dance Artist/Educator Dwana A. Smallwood

Dear Bed Stuy:

The Arts in NYC are dying...

My name is Dwana Adiaha Smallwood. I was a premier dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1995 - 2007. I’ve been on the cover of Dance Magazine three times. I’ve been featured in Essence Magazine and I have been photographed by Annie Leibowitz for Vogue Magazine.  I was also featured and danced on The Oprah Show.

I took everything I learned over my many years as a professional and created a dance program in South Africa at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. The program was designed for girls who needed validation and opportunities to harness the power within, so they too could exceed the expectations many have of black girls around the world. With dance, I was able to create a sacred space for them; that same space that saved me from the noise of the world to help me reach my goals. 

I yearned to continue that work and to create a space for the community that saved me but almost swallowed me whole.  For Bedford-Stuyvesant (still one of the most underserved communities in Brooklyn),  I wanted so desperately to be the answer to the prayer I often heard: “I wish I had a place to grow and to feel like I can be anything, do anything.” 

So in 2013, I founded and opened the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center in Bed Stuy Brooklyn, a state of the art facility which is a place for artistic exchange that serves to empower and mold elite dancers and artists to develop, grow and compete on the world’s stage. Today I am writing to let you know that due to the COVID - 19 pandemic, in about four months, we will have to shut our doors…. 

I worked hard to create the space politicians said they needed, parents said they wanted, and children said they had to have. I could only imagine how many more of my community members would have had better options had they had a center like mine, to help guide them and keep them safe and provide validation to their lives. It wasn't easy to build. I almost closed before we opened. Each year since, I’ve struggled to keep the doors open and continued to offer opportunities to children and the community to thrive, but COVID-19 has hit us hard like so many other small arts institutions, and what I so dreaded, may actually be a reality. All that I have worked for may not survive. 

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and have lived here my entire life. When I think about my upbringing, I think I had a childhood no different than anyone else in Bed Stuy. I had a single struggling mother mostly -- we were fatherless mostly -- and I was Black always. 

Somehow, through struggle, prayers, tears, hard work, the Creator, and the collective work of the community I was able to live my dream and travel the world. To most elite athletes, we would consider this to be a huge accomplishment; to make it out of millions dancing and training and auditioning to become one of only two elite dancers chosen that year. I was that girl; that black, bald, skinny, struggling girl who had made it past the expectations placed on all little dark-skinned black girls by the world. 

The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center has been closed since March.  Due to NYC’s guidelines, we have not been allowed to open our doors even to rent out space. We will close for good if we don’t raise money NOW. I always wondered how something that means so much to so many and requires so little from each of us, will be allowed to die.

It would be among the greatest failures of our community if we close.

The arts have always been the answer when the healing of a nation is needed.  If and/or when this pandemic is over, the arts will be needed more than ever to replenish, refresh and rejuvenate our communities, our children, and their families.

The intention of this letter is not to ask for money (although that would be helpful and graciously accepted).  I’m asking that you help me to sound the alarm.  I have reached out to media outlets, government officials and others that I had hoped could help and some have, but in the world of fast news cycles, this message has been lost; not just for my organization but for many others like mine.

Please pass this onto ANYONE you know or think can help get this message out to the media (social, news, arts, entertainment...whatever). Any help you can offer will be appreciated.

The collective healing of our nation is going to need the ARTS. Dance is My Oxygen!

Dwana A. Smallwood
Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center, Inc.
(718) 443 - 9800


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve, at Gibney, as Senior Director of Artist Development and Curation and Editorial Director. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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