D.C. youth living in underserved neighborhoods find it nearly impossible to escape a world of poverty in order to discover their potential and make their dreams come true.
But in 2005, an innovative school program comprised of 15 students was launched at Ward 8’s Green Elementary (now Turner) that has continued to expand and evolve, providing access to high-quality dance training integrated with academic support and family services and eventually achieving nationally acclaim.
And on Saturday, May 5 at the Historic Lincoln Theatre in Northwest, some of the world’s top classical, contemporary, hip-hop and tap dance artists, along with select District students, will take to the stage in a performance to raise funds for CityDance DREAM.
Kelli Quinn, founding director of DREAM, spearheads the program which employs pure arts education and uses dance as a vehicle for youth development and behavioral change. The Towson University graduate in Dance Performance now marking her 10th year with CityDance maintains a belief in the transformative power of dance in the life of a child.
“I was hooked on dance since I was a child because it was one of the few places where I was free to be myself,” said Quinn, 33, who lives in Northwest with her husband and their two children, 7 and 5.
“I discovered unknown parts of myself and was able to develop them in ways that just weren’t as comfortable outside of the safer environs of the dance studio,” she said. “The studio would become a place of freedom and growth for me. CityDance DREAM provides similar paths for D.C.’s youth.”
Quinn says the CityDance DREAM gala, which supports and raises funds for the DREAM program, will feature “an amazing night of talented, professionally-trained dancers representing all genres from across the U.S.”
“Each year we include two student pieces into the show — the rest of the performers are pros who have achieved success in dance. This year, as in the past, it’s going to be a fantastic night.”
“We’ve diversified our funding so that we receive both federal and city dollars, grants and special donations from several longtime donors. But the gala serves as our biggest fundraiser. We’ve been creative in securing funds by necessity because it’s always been important that we remain true to our mission — even in financially difficult times.”
“We’re all about supporting the needs of the entire child through dance and hold fast to the belief that dance is life-changing. We see it in our students time and time again. Some come to us shy and learn how to interact with others in new ways, gaining self-confidence along the way.”
Quinn emphasizes how dance helps youth identify their weaknesses as well as allowing them to build upon their strengths.
“Our children face adversity from a variety of sources and places,” she said. “We know that confronting things that hurt and seem overwhelming is no easy feat. There are times that they want to give up — times that they become exhausted. But we push them and do it in an environment where they’re emotionally and physically safe and where they can grow strong relationships with their teachers and their peers.”
The DREAM gala, which kicks off at 8 p.m., features a lineup that will include: Cartier Williams; BalletX; Pete Walker and Anna Gerberich; Aspen Santa Fe Ballet; Brooklyn Mack; The Washington Ballet; guest artists from Bruce Wood Dance; and CityDance students.
For one of the performers, a tap dance phenom and the founder of his own dance group who spent his formative years on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southwest and graduated from Wilson High School, it’s a homecoming that he says reminds him of the many opportunities he received as a child that allowed him to “achieve his dreams.”
“This will be my third time performing in the gala and I continue coming back because CityDance Dream is a program with a purpose that I support 100 percent,” said Cartier Williams, 28, whose Cartier Williams Dance Theatre has been featured around the world.
In fact, he’s tapped his way onto The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, CNN and has performed for two U.S. Presidents. He’s also toured the U.S. and Japan in the Tony Award-winning “BRING IN ‘da NOISE, BRING IN ‘da FUNK” with Savion Glover.
“Tap is actually all around us — it’s an American dance form,” he said. “But you have to be patient and it’s best to get children involved when they’re very young. My grandmother taught me how to tap and she first began taking me to dance camps when I was just 4. But I was already improvising. It was something that came naturally, and I really liked to do it.”
Cartier says he recalls admiring Sammy Davis Jr. as one of his early role models. Now, as a role model for others, he realizes the awesome responsibility he carries upon his shoulders.
“Tap allows children to use their imaginations,” he said. “I tell them to trust me and come with me, so we can begin to tell our own stories. The key is making sure they understand that you’re going to take that journey together. I believe children today are on their phones so much because that phone takes them on roads of adventure where they can use their imagination. But we can do that through dance and at the same time visit some of our ancestors. Once they realize that, they never look back.”
CityDance DREAM is a branch of the nonprofit CityDance. Alexe Nowakowski is the CEO of CityDance. For tickets or more information, go to www.citydance.net.