Smallwood Brings Ailey Experience to Harvard

At one point during her master class on Sept. 26, Dwana Smallwood felt that the dancers were just slightly off on the combination they were practicing. She paused the dancing but left the music on. “Listen to the music. Tap the beat out,” Smallwood said. And so a room of panting, sweat-slicked dancers each momentarily stood still, rhythmically drumming one foot. “You’ve got to be in the music,” she instructed.

This moment illustrates Smallwood’s approach to dance. She emphasizes organic, bold, rhythmic movements that require an unselfconscious command of the body in addition to technical proficiency. “Her movement quality is almost ethereal,” says Claire Johnson, a resident of Arlington and participant in the class. “She’s so organized in her movement; it’s something to aspire to.”

After achieving iconic status as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Smallwood served as the director of student affairs for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Currently, she is the executive director of Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center. Such a resume speaks to Harvard’s objectives for the master class series, according to Jill Johnson, director of dance at Harvard. “I so admire [Smallwood’s] approach to dance education, her belief in the power of arts and dance in our own internal community but also in the greater world community,” she says. “She’s such an artist citizen, and that’s really important to us here.”

This past weekend, Smallwood visited Harvard Dance Center to teach a fast-paced, two-hour contemporary master class to 31 dancers. In addition to a set of sore muscles, dancers gained an exclusive look at the way Smallwood moves and thinks as a dancer and choreographer. “It’s one of those analogue things—like music, like live poetry reading, like theater,” Jill Johnson says. “You can capture them in certain ways, but there’s nothing quite like being there.”

At the end of class, Smallwood gave some inspiring words to the dancers. “It’s a great thing that it’s not a dying art form, that we still have people excited to learn,” she said. “That means a lot to me that, when I leave this earth, we’ll still be dancing. Don’t let anybody kill your joy or initial joy for stepping into this role as a dancer”


Andrea Rustid, a student at Boston University, especially enjoyed the class. Referred by one of her teachers, she found the experience refreshingly unique. “It was different because I usually do ballet, so this was a really different experience for me,” she says. “To loosen up is not something I’m used to. I wish I could come back and do it again.”

Claire Johnson was especially excited to join the class because of Smallwood’s Ailey experience. “I’ve had a chance to train at the Ailey,” she says. “I did a summer intensive with them when I was just out of college.” But the experience spoke to her on a deeper level as well. “I grew up on Cape Cod,” she says. “There were no black people at all. And so, to be doing ballet, where there is a complete lack of diversity to begin with...was always a huge struggle for me, and I never felt like I fit in. When I got to Ailey, and I saw that there were dancers who looked like me and could move, it was so amazing. To now be actually having the opportunity to see one up close and speak with her, it’s just amazing.”