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Oprah Winfrey-Backed Performing Arts Center Aims to Inspire Bed-Stuy Youth

By Camille Bautista | November 12, 2014 8:51am
 Professional dancer Dwana Smallwood will open a performing arts center in Bedford-Stuyvesant in February.
Professional dancer Dwana Smallwood will open a performing arts center in Bedford-Stuyvesant in February.
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Dwana Smallwood

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — When Dwana Smallwood worked with Oprah Winfrey to help develop a dance company for young girls in South Africa in 2009, she knew she had discovered her life’s purpose.

The professional dancer made it her mission to bring her blueprint back home to Brooklyn, where she plans to open a dance venue in February in Bed-Stuy.

The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center will aim to encourage children in the community, using dance as a means to “thrive…and escape the rise in gang culture,” according to the project’s website.

“Let’s talk about our youth who are losing their humanity,” Smallwood told DNAinfo New York, citing the prevalence of violence and struggling schools.

“It’s a matter of urgency that we bring life back to our neighborhood and hold each other accountable.”

The 4,000-square-foot facility at 857 Lexington Ave. will house a library, locker rooms and studios, where students can take classes in everything from Afro-Carribean dance and hip-hop to house and ballet.

Smallwood, 41, along with community members, celebrated the groundbreaking with a ceremony on Oct. 25. Construction is set to begin next week after contracts were finalized Monday.

The founder decided to start her own organization after working with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and serving as director of student affairs at Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

She was inspired by an effort to bring “high class viable institutions” to Bedford-Stuyvesant and keep artists from leaving the area, she said.

“It’s ‘Do or die Bed-Stuy,'” Smallwood added, referring to the notorious neighborhood nickname. “But let’s get up and do a little more doing and a little less dying.”

The new performing arts center received an undisclosed donation from Winfrey for startup funding.

In addition to the “generous” contribution,” Smallwood said she is looking to raise $80,000 by Dec. 17 to finance the venue’s opening performance.

A Kickstarter campaign will cover costs of free dance, costume and makeup workshops for participants ages 11 through 17, culminating in the center’s first community production.