Thanks to a unique partnership between the District and the developer William C. Smith & Co., the non-profit Building Bridges Across the River was able to construct a state of the art 110,000 square foot community center on 16.5 acres in SE Washington, DC (Ward 8.) The Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus (THEARC) opened in 2005, offering a safe haven for youth and families. Approximately 7,000 children live within one square mile of THEARC; more than half of them live at, or below, the poverty line. Building Bridges Across the River continues to manage THEARC; THEARC houses ten nonprofit agencies, including a branch of The Washington School of Ballet.
The Washington Ballet’s main campus is in Northwest Washington, DC. In order to appropriately program for this new campus, and community, we commissioned a one-year exploratory study. Callahan Consulting for the Arts conducted the study, meeting with Ward 8 leaders from politics, education, the arts, and religious practice. The findings helped us understand community expectation and perception, and engaged us with some “what to expect” scenarios.
The Washington Ballet opened its doors at THEARC with one full-time employee and two part-time dance teachers. I was hired in 2005 as the Education Director, and then in 2006 became Director of TWB@THEARC. We opened the studios with a month of free classes in the summer of 2005. Eight hundred and thirty people, ages 5 – 55, attended classes during that month. Our first school year began with over 200 students walking through our doors; we expected 60-90. The first year came and went with much excitement and exuberance for the opportunity “to take dance classes so close in the neighborhood,” but the excitement waned after the first year, replaced with the hard work of training each and every student.
We essentially have two groups of students: students who want pre-professional dance training, and students with no prior ballet experience interested in exploring the art. As we watch the different skill levels of these two groups diverge, staff, faculty, and parents wrestle with questions about the direction and quality of the program. “Is the training at the SE location on the same level as the NW location? Are the teachers receiving the same technical training?” And, since the Ballet opened a campus in Old Town, Alexandria in 2009: “Are we expecting the same things from student’s at all three campuses?”
Last year, as we marked our fourth year of programs, we engaged in a capacity building study with Katherine Coles Associates. We were excited to discover that staff, faculty, and parents all wanted the highest level of training for our students. The study revealed a clear direction to take our programs to the next level of intensity and excellence. This meant systemic change in process and behavior for all involved. We introduced a mandatory parent meeting in September to discuss expectations of students and parents, and to set program goals for the coming year. The school director from the NW campus visits the SE campus weekly, working with faculty and students to ensure standards are rigorous and consistent. And, we now have monthly meetings between the Washington Ballet’s Executive Director, Artistic Director, School Director, and me (THEARC Director.)
My professional goal is to unlock hidden potential, and open eyes to an array of future possibilities. My greatest joys emerge from the constant dialogue with my students, their parents, and our teachers. The families who attend classes at The Washington School of Ballet do not want “handouts.” They want and expect a “level playing field” with the Northwest Campus in terms of quality education, resources, and access. It has always been our goal to build relationships with THEARC Community. Relationships are built on trust and trust is built through disclosure and transparency, a give and take of open conversation. I hope that THEARC program will emerge as a guiding light in dance education for the nation.
KATRINA TOEWS is a professional dancer, choreographer, teacher, Pilates trainer and arts administrator. Over the years, however, Ms. Toews has always loved working with children most. Ms. Toews was first hired to teach at The Washington School of Ballet under founder Mary Day. She enjoyed the children so much that she began work in the education programs as well. She was the originator of the programs for The Washington Ballet @ THEARC as has been at the SE campus since its inception.
Ms. Toews holds an MA in Dance from American University as well as a BA in Fine Arts and Elementary Education from Bethel College in Kansas. She trained with Mimi Legat, Peter Stark, Mandy Jorgenson, and Denise Celestin, among others. Ms. Toews has danced with bosmadance, Sister’s Trousers and Carla and Co., and founded her own contemporary company, K2 Dance in 2005. Her work has been described by Washington Post critics as “solidly crafted quality” with choreography that “stands out.”
Ms. Toews has presented work on dance and education at various conferences across the U.S. and is a member of the National Dance Education Organization. Ms. Toews will receive the 2010 Young Alumni award in Kansas for her work with youth in the field of dance.