Dwana Adiaha Smallwood has a message for New Yorkers: The arts in the city are dying.
Smallwood, the founder of The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center (DSPAC), is sounding the alarm and calling on politicians to save an industry she said will be vital to the healing of the nation post-pandemic.
“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,” Smallwood wrote on DSPAC’s Facebook page.
A former premier dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and creator of the South African Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls’ dance department, Smallwood returned to Bed-Stuy to help the children of her community using her first love — dance. In 2013, she opened DSPAC, a space for artistic exchange and growth that empowers and molds elite dancers and artists to compete globally.
“I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and I traveled the world getting to do what I had always wanted to do,” Smallwood said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if I could bring back what I have learned over my career to the community and try to answer the needs of the community’.”
And for the past seven years Smallwood has done just that. But when COVID-19 hit and forced the school’s closure in March, Smallwood found herself without a means of income for the school or any helpf from the city.
“COVID-19 has reassured what I have always known to be true about the arts. Although it is at the forefront of my mind and I am an advocate for the arts, it is not a priority in the minds and hearts of our government,” Smallwood said. “That is a problem, because so much could be saved if the federal government just gave us bailouts.”
Smallwood said she would keep the center open until December through grant money and loans, but after that she was at a loss. Without any city, state or federal assistance, she has turned to the community and set up fundraiser One Million Strong with the goal of raising $1,000,000. Currently, donations are at $65,797.
“We are now hitting a second wave. I keep praying that my ZIP code will not be shut down, and this is happening because in some neighborhoods people are not thinking about the collective, that you are part of the whole,” Smallwood said. “And that is what I am trying to teach at the center.”
In her class Dance and So Much More, dancers are taught they have a responsibility to themselves, their families, communities and the world at large.
“It matters that we have institutions in our community that prioritize our children, that prioritize the arts,” Smallwood said. “The arts matter and we bring in billions of dollars annually along with a sense of community, confidence, security and respect. Through every atrocity arts have helped us navigate what we aren’t able to verbalize.”
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