A Dancer's Guide to DC

“The District” is what residents call Washington, DC, a city that’s much more than just the seat of America’s government. It also has a diverse arts scene. DC’s dance used to be divided—there were internationals and locals. Dressy audiences that included the diplomatic corps, members of Congress and prominent visitors went to see prestigious companies from the great world capitals perform in such splashy venues as The Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap. Local dance companies, however, seemed small-time and performed in remote places, each group with its own sparse following. Big-time dance didn’t mix with the locals.

No longer! Now the major presenters are putting Washington artists on their series, commissioning new work from them and demonstrating that local dancers can hold their own in competition with glamorous imports.

New dance facilities are also giving small companies more and better performing options. More new theaters and spaces for dance have opened recently, or are about to open, than at any time since 1970, when Wolf Trap and The Kennedy Center were being built.
It’s easy to find technique classes in and around DC. Universities such as George Mason University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Gallaudet University (for the hearing impaired) have dance departments that provide technical training. To take those classes, though, one must be a registered student. The same goes for Kirov Academy of Ballet, affiliated with Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet in Russia. Open classes in ballet, modern, urban and world dance forms are available at most other studios.

Washington is filled with museums and archives. Dance treasures can be found in such collections as the Library of Congress and National Portrait Gallery. Other resources include the headquarters of Dance/USA (a coalition of professional companies) and the National Dance Education Organization. Dance publications based here include Rob Bettmann’s Bourgeon, with an affiliated blog at dcdancejournal.blogspot.com, and the free quarterly DanceView from Alexandra Tomalonis (danceviewtimes.com). Both
residents and visitors read dancemetrodc.org, an online dance resource that is a branch of Dance/USA. Here’s a snapshot of what else to expect around the city.


CityDance Ensemble’s artistic director, Paul Gordon Emerson, strives to present a broad repertory on stage and screen. The ensemble is based in the city and its school, which trains children and adults in modern, tap, ballet, jazz, hip hop, yoga, Pilates and world forms, is based at the CityDance Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, MD. citydance.net; 202-347-3909

The works of Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. are highly polished modern pieces with a reverential quality and a Far East sensibility. For more, see p. 60. movingforwarddance.com; 202-297-2436

KanKouran West African Dance Company transplants the pulse of Africa to America, insisting on authenticity. Audiences get to join in during each show’s finale. kankouran.org; 202-518-1213

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, directed by MacArthur Fellow Lerman and based in Takoma Park, MD, is a modern dance “family” that presents socially pertinent work. danceexchange.org; 301-270-6700

Step Afrika! specializes in percussive work—stomping, treading, tapping. The dancers’ delivery is dynamic, yet subtle.  stepafrika.org; 202-462-2595

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, led by director and ballerina emerita Farrell, focuses on the dancing she knew during her own career: the choreography and technique of George Balanchine. The company also performs samplings of Maurice Béjart and Jerome Robbins. Based at The Kennedy Center, SFB tours widely. suzannefarrellballet.org

Synetic Theater, a dance theater company, knows how to tell a story—Georgian artistic director and founder Paata Tsikurishvili studied mime, while his Russian ballerina wife, Irina, choreographs, acts and dances. Synetic’s productions, notably the silent Hamlet, have won three Helen Hayes awards. synetictheater.org; 703-824-8060

The Washington Ballet, under the direction of Septime Webre, performs repertory ranging from contemporary to the classics. Former NYC Ballet dancer Jeff Edwards is the associate artistic director of the apprentice Studio Company. Its second home, THEARC, is a spiffy new facility at the city’s southeast border that hosts community programs and a branch of the Washington School of Ballet. washingtonballet.org; 202-362-3606

Performance Venues

George Mason University’s Center for the Arts presents varied dance—ballet and modern—from around the world, but to get there you need a car—it’s located in Fairfax, VA. gmu.edu/cfa; 703-993-ARTS

At The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it’s possible to have at least four different dance experiences on a single day, from lecture/demonstrations and free performances to major productions and dance films. A must-see is its rooftop view of the Potomac River. The annual KC Honors are televised. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600

To the northwest is the Music Center at Strathmore, where dance is performed in multiple studios and in a large new concert hall. This is the only major DC performance venue directly on the Metro. strathmore.org; 301-581-5100

The University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center presents dance from America and abroad, but you’ll need a car, as it’s located north of the city in College Park, MD. claricesmithcenter.umd.edu; 301-405-7794

Located downtown, Warner Theatre hosts events such as flamenco festivals and Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker. Drinks and snacks can be taken to box seats. warnertheatre.com; 202-783-4000

To the south in Virginia, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts showcases popular companies like the Bolshoi in its huge, open-air Filene Center each summer. Sightlines are good despite the size. In the summer, buses connect the park with public transport. wolftrap.org; 877-WOLFTRAP

Venues with Studios & Theaters

American Dance Institute’s ultramodern facility, northwest of town in Rockville, MD, was founded by Michael and Pamela Bjerknes, formerly of Washington and Joffrey ballets and American Ballet Theatre, respectively. Classes are in ballet, modern, flamenco and other techniques. Performances are by Meisha Bosma’s Bosma Dance and Helanius Wilkins’s modern EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, as well as touring groups from around the U.S. Parking is at the front door. americandance.org; 301-984-3003

Dance Place, a studio theater, is the heart of Washington’s modern dance world, though other dance forms are also taught and presented at this showcase for small companies from near and far—there are shows every weekend except, briefly, at the end of summer. danceplace.org; 202-269-1600 

Joy of Motion Dance Center has several branches in the DC area, all directed by Douglas Yeuell. They offer many types of instruction from ballet to belly to neo-Graham. Seven resident companies perform at JoM’s Friendship Heights location in town. joyofmotion.org; 301-986-0016


Berrend Dance Centre, directed by Patricia Berrend, former associate director of  the Washington School of Ballet, is home to
Olney Ballet Theatre. berrenddancecentre.com; 301-774-3032

Dance Institute of Washington, founded by Fabian Barnes, formerly of Dance Theatre of Harlem, offers ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop and tap classes. Its new facility is also home to Washington Reflections. danceinstitute.org; 202-371-9656

The Department of Theatre and Dance at George Washington University offers dance baccalaureates an emphasis on modern dance. Aside from The Kennedy Center, GWU’s Lisner Auditorium is the only large facility located in DC’s core that features dance. Dancers study technique, choreography, community engagement and dance history. Faculty includes choreographers Maida Withers and Dana Tai Soon Burgess, and dancer Mary Buckley. theatredance.gwu.edu; 202-994-8072

Jones-Haywood School of Ballet is one of the nation’s first ballet schools for black students. Ballet and tap training continue in the tradition of the late founders, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. 202-882-4039                   

Kirov Academy of Ballet (formerly the Universal Ballet Academy) is a boarding school and summer program that offers Russian-style training. Oleg Vinogradov, ex-director of Russia’s Kirov Ballet, sets policy. The dance teachers are primarily Russian, and the academic faculty is largely American. Students do well at competitions and win contracts with top companies. ubacademy.org; 202-832-1087

School of Maryland Youth Ballet offers ballet and modern dance training given by a large faculty that includes competition coach Rhodie Jorgenson. The company, directed by Hortensia Fonseca, presents young dancers in ballets for young audiences. Every holiday season, MYB presents Michelle Lees’s Nutcracker. marylandyouthballet.org; 301-652-2232

Artistic Dance Fashions: 301-652-2323,  artisticdancefashions.com
Art Stone Dance & Bodywear: 703-560-7047
Backstage, Inc.: 202-544-5744, backstage costumes.com
Dancer: 301-856-2144, dancertheunusual store.com
Junior Mode Shoes and Dance: 301-779-1146, jrmodeshoesanddance.com
Les Gals Activewear: 301-608-3237, lesgals activewear.com
Repeat Performance: 301-881-0800, repeat performanceonline.com

George Jackson’s reviews and stories on dance history have appeared in The Washington Star, The Washington Post and the London Times Magazine, and in dance periodicals on three continents.

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