Dwana Smallwood enjoyed an illustrious career, first spending over a decade as a principal dancer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater then by being involved with many roles at Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy in South Africa - eventually becoming the director, before coming back to her native Bed-Stuy Community to start her own performance arts center. Dwana Smallwood Performance Arts Center (DSPAC), located a block away from St. John’s Bread and Life at 857 Lexington Avenue, has become our newest neighbor! Have a look at this exclusive interview to get inside the mind of Dwana. See why she thinks this part of Bed-Stuy is a cultural desert. Read about how she thinks St. John’s Bread and Life and DSPAC will come together to help to improve that.

Bread and Life

So, you grew up in Bed-Stuy; tell me about the neighborhood then, what has changed and what stayed the same?

Dwana

When I grew up in Bed-Stuy, it was really about getting jumped and a lot drugs and there was also a lot of community, meaning people trying to hold themselves together, and families being responsible for each other, and that's if you were one of those families that were in that network. But there were a lot of influences; bad influences. You know, the wrong people, the drug dealers and to this day they still exist. Over here in this particular neighborhood where we are, which is in Bed-Stuy, we're more on the northeast side of it. It's riddled with still drugs and some...this use to be like a strip...this area where...because there’s nothing but factories and so you still have people abandoning trash and people just, you know, doing all kinds of things; using the streets for things shouldn't be. …we need more things that say Bed-Stuy is alive, Bed-Stuy is functioning. It seems like all these great artists and great writers and doctors come out of Bed-Stuy, but why don't they come back? Why don't we have any of these centers and facilities in Bed-Stuy to help these people flourish and to help our kids have something other than to join the gangs and to be in, and to have drugs and all those things and so, that's why I'm here.

Bread and Life

Ok. That’s awesome then. Actually, I heard that either you or Kateria(General Manager of DSPAC) mentioned that this area is a sort of cultural desert. How do you see your performance arts center changing this? 

Dwana

Our performance arts center? We see it being the epicenter for so much change for some cultural upbringing for community engagement. We want to bring people in and want to have things out in the streets; dance festivals. We want to challenge the community to allow them to be a little more responsible for what can come into their neighborhoods and be a little more accountable for what has been taken out of the communities… Our street shouldn't look like this. You know, you walked in here and you see it, and we're about to organize our kids and some of our employees to go out in the streets and to clean up this particular block, so we can start taking responsibility and ownership of what is here and what belongs to us. If we care more about it, then I think people treat it better… the center will be that, the center will be a refuge for some people who have no outlets, who have nothing to do, who have nowhere to go. They don't realize that there are other ways to survive in this world and there are other avenues, and there are other paths, and there are other careers. They don't realize that; they think if you're not wealthy, then you can't make it; but that's not the truth. We're here to give people hope, we're here to give people just opportunities to see themselves and to recognize within themselves what is possible, and it doesn’t have to necessarily be dance, but that is the tool that we use to reach people and then, hopefully, they will understand, come to the understanding that they need to find something that speaks to them.

Bread and Life

Great segue because I was going to ask you, on your blog you write "Dance is my oxygen" and so, given your experience, what affect do you see dance having on your students?

Dwana

Ooh goodness! I see a tremendous affect. I've dealt with over the years, many students who have had traumatic experiences, who've had just normal teenage experiences. You know, trying to grow up with the hormones and the emotional outbursts and the bullying and just life. Growing up sometimes can be a little challenging, and dance helps them to grow a thicker skin, a stronger sense of self, a little more discipline and a little more focus within their own lives. Because when you are focused, the things that can distract you, that noise of the world, is sort of blocked out is sort of doesn't affect you, it doesn't come in and it doesn't pull you away from the positive things that could be going on in your life and so, that's what I've seen.

Bread and Life

At Bread and Life, it is fulfilling for us to see someone coming through our doors first and then come back weeks/months/years later and tell us about how our programs have improved their lives. Do you have any sort of nice success stories that you think about in your work?

Dwana

There are! In South Africa, I had spoken about atrocities. Like a lot of the young women have seen more than 2 or 3 traumas in their lives before they even reached high school, and dance was one of the things that helped them to emotionally heal, to remove and to cleanse themselves of some of the fear and some of the anxiety and some of the anger; because you know, when you dance it releases endorphins, when you dance about things that you can identify with, then it becomes more of a personal story, and it becomes a journey as you learn the piece and as you express the piece and as you share the piece. It's almost like you're telling your story without telling your story; but you need to get it out and so, that's a way to let some people get out. So, when I see a young girl who is struggling, and then I see them months later, who now is alive and awake and maybe now can release what has really happened.

Bread and Life

So, now we are new neighbors. So, how do you envision a way for Bread and Life and... (DSPAC to collaborate together in the future)

Dwana

Oh my God! I have so many ideas! Yes, Bread and Life has a community that I feel… serves a community that I feel is spiritually and culturally malnourished and I feel like dance, and the arts can restore a person's spirit and energy and umph, and it can restore them. Once you've been beaten so bad by life and the situation and the substances that have taken over your body, it really has an effect on you; and so, once you come out of that and you detox, now, how do you restore where you are and where you've been? How do you forgive? How do you...you know and sometimes you can take some therapy but you have actively have to get up and move yourself, and sometimes move away from the [and I mean it literally and figuratively, move away from the] negative stigma that you now place on yourself and that people have placed on you. And so, we would like to provide classes and provide opportunities where they can see performances, and they can engage in dance classes… You know, you need endurance when you are going through hard times and how do you deal with that? You can go to church and some people don't do that. Some people need an active moving, energetic, engaging activity, and so we believe that dance can do that. We want to do festivals, where Bread and Life community comes over. Maybe they have their truck and they're over there with volunteers and they are talking about what the services are in the community. ...you know, just because you've lost your way, it doesn't mean that you've lost. It just means, okay, like I got to get back up and start all over, I got to get back up and you know, start again, and there are different ways, and we believe dance can do that. 

Bread and Life

OK and the final question…what is going on at Dwana Smallwood’s Performing Arts Center this fall and winter?

Dwana

Oh! Fall and winter! We still have dance going on. Always, always. We have a Fall Program for our young people, ages 3-18, and of course, we have adult classes; morning stretch, gyrokinesis, yoga and African and then, we also will have our performance with our young people. We have some rentals and workshops, people rent the space. We also will have a fundraiser, we have a youth ensemble, so they will be performing in the fall – in October. What else? That's enough for right now. That's a lot going on. So, yeah, we have a lot of things going on and we hope to always stay engaged with the neighborhood and with Bread and Life; because it is really about community.

Watch Dwana Speak at her groundbreaking ceremony.

 

Have a look at the DSPAC’s website here and register for fall classes now!