Darwyn, 10, just wants to dance. “I like the rhythm and how we move our bodies,” he says after clapping, jumping and shuffling his way through a National Dance Institute class at P.S. 189 in Washington Heights.
The small auditorium where three institute instructors teach Darwyn and his classmates once a week fills with the sounds of drum beats, snaps and squeaking sneakers as the group runs through exercises, warmups and dance routines.
For 35 years such auditoriums were the closest connection to a home base for the National Dance Institute, which provides arts education to students primarily through a free in-school dance program.
Since 1976, the institute has reached more than 2 million students and expanded to 11 associate programs across the country, as well as many others around the world. Jacques d’Amboise, a former principal dancer and choreographer for the New York City Ballet, started the institute in an effort to offer free dance education to children who didn’t get much exposure to the arts.
While the in-school classes continue, the National Dance Institute for the first time has its own permanent headquarters. The 18,000-square-foot center — between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards on 147th Street — has two art galleries, staff offices, a terrace and four studios, one of which converts to a performance space seating about 175 people.
The institute’s new home doesn’t represent much of a departure from those school auditoriums; the building itself was once P.S. 90, abandoned since the 1970s but now once more filled with excited chatter of eager students.
Originally built in the early 1900s and completely gutted, according to artistic director Ellen Weinstein, the center features gleaming white walls bedecked with bright artwork given or lent by local artists, as well as wood floors specially suited for dancers.
“When the children come in for dance classes, they’re going to sit in the halls and be surrounded by great art,” d’Amboise says. The center helps the institute expand its reach to cover a broader arts spectrum.
“It’s been a dream for most of our 35 years,” Weinstein says. “Especially in the last 10. It had become increasingly difficult to function.”
The institute had rented or borrowed space, something that became more difficult as it grew. D’Amboise remembers struggling to find places to rehearse and perform. “The programs take place in schools during school hours,” d’Amboise says. “To do more advanced programs we needed a place.”
Weinstein echoes: “We were like gypsies. We were running out of available space, and we weren’t able to do things in a planned way because we weren’t in control of our space.”
Administrators believe the center also ensures its future. “We’re here; this is our home,” Weinstein says. “For us and for our funders, we’re not going anywhere. It’s not going to dissolve.”
Their concern was perhaps intensified by the reality that d’Amboise — an active teacher at 77 years old — has passed traditional retirement age. He represents the heart of the National Dance Institute, but administrators wanted to ensure that the institute would endure long after he leaves.
After years of searching for a proper location, P.S. 90 came to executives’ attention. The institute spent $11.5 million to pay for the building and its renovation. George Soros’ Open Society Foundations provided a lead gift of $5 million, supplemented by board members and other donors. “I think the stars aligned,” says Kathy Landau, the institute’s executive director.
The institute purchased the building in November 2010. Renovation, begun in December, was completed under budget and ahead of schedule, and the institute moved into the center in August 2011 and opened officially in October.
“Now we’re down to the choices part,” Landau says. “Do we buy the curtains and the tracks? What are the most important things now?”
The organization’s leaders now must grapple with determining how to preserve the original mission of the National Dance Institute after such a fundamental change. “Rather than letting the building change the mission and purpose of the programming, it was created to support the mission,” Landau says.
In-school classes remain free and the spotlight of the institute’s programming. After-school and weekend classes, as well as special events, take place at the center. The institute has added three new partner schools in Harlem, Weinstein says, “allowing us to double and triple the number of children we’re reaching.”
To make its programming available to students who don’t attend one of the 31 partner schools and to allow for more advanced instruction, the institute also offers after-school classes at the center for a fee, a departure from its traditional policy of free instruction.
Darwyn just wants to dance. He and his fourth-grade peers, whose last names the institute withheld as a condition of the interviews, are unaware of any changes; for them, the classes are simply the road to the final performance they watched last year and enthusiastically await this year.
“I’m excited because my parents are going to see me dance,” says Jordany, 9, who moments earlier was eagerly jumping up and down, striking poses onstage.
The institute reaches about 5,000 elementary school students each week — up from around 4,000 before the center was built. In some cases, institute classes are the only arts or physical education students will receive. Darwyn and Jordany’s class of about 25 is led by master teacher Arthur Fredric, co-teacher and institute alumnus Dufftin Garcia and musician Tim Harrison. This three-teacher formula is standard.
Institute teachers are encouraged to change the configuration of the room periodically, shifting where they stand and which way students face so that no front line develops. This tactic gives all students a chance to be in the lead and allows the instructors to easily spot any struggling dancers.
“Another teacher might just say, ‘Let’s keep going and going,’ but here they’re really following along,” Fredric says. “We’re really taking our time with the kids.”
A move is repeated as many times as necessary until every student feels comfortable. Although many of the students would likely look out of place in a professional dance class, here their various heights and body types are irrelevant; all are eventually able to execute the moves with ease and style.
Fredric occasionally selects students to serve as “assistant directors” who decide whether a sequence is up to par, rendering the students active participants in determining the class’s success. When Nicolette, 9, adds a clap above her head to one of the moves, Fredric likes the change so much that he has her teach it to the rest of the class. She shyly complies — but smiles at each subsequent reference to “The Nicolette.”
“The movement is accessible to all,” Weinstein says. “We’re doing things they can all achieve — and they do.” Harrison wanders the room with a drum, adjusting his beat to fit each sequence, sometimes moving to the piano. Fredric and Garcia remind the students that they’ll eventually be executing these moves in front of an audience; in response, they all shriek.
Weinstein describes the end-of-year performances at each school as a rite of passage. The event creates a ripple effect, Fredric says. “You change the whole community,” he says. “The kids come to see the show in kindergarten and then there’s anticipation for it. They want to do it themselves.”
Some become so enthusiastic that they move on to advanced institute programs, like the SWAT Team — “scholarships for the willing, achieving and talented.” SWAT Dancers chosen from the in-school classes receive free training outside school hours and perform at the Event of the Year, which also features dancers from the advanced Celebration Team.
Most of these students won’t pursue arts careers, but to institute administrators, that might be the point. “You take mathematics in school and it doesn’t mean you have to be a physicist, but everyone should take it because it’s beautiful and great,” d’Amboise says. “Everybody should take dancing and music but it doesn’t mean you have to do it as a career. You should take it because it’s part of being a human being.”
Last year’s Event of the Year focused on the intersection of science and the arts; one routine explored the properties of DNA. “Now every kid in that class can tell you how DNA replicates,” Weinstein says. “It’s more than just reading it in a book.”
To her, the idea is simply to promote student achievement. “I’m equally proud of the people who go on to college and become doctors and lawyers,” she says. “The goal is not to train professional dancers; this isn’t a conservatory. We just want to make sure every child has a success.”
Some students have gone on to careers in the arts, however. One dancer has performed with Beyonce and another with Madonna. A student recently appeared on the television show “Glee.” Garcia was a National Dance Institute student who started a boy’s ballet class and eventually got a call from d’Amboise to teach with the institute. “We give students tools,” Weinstein says. “It’s about rigor, discipline, joy.”
The institute’s particular brand of education seems to have an effect on the fourth graders at P.S. 189. At one point Fredric assures them, “You guys are good.” One of the boys yells back in response, “Good, not great!”
This desire to never settle has helped the institute reach this milestone. “We built the physical space,” Landau says. “Now what we’re building is a legacy.”
For more information on the National Dance Institute’s move click here.