Kahina Haynes, Dance Institute Washington Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In the eyes of Kahina Haynes, the executive director of Dance Institute of Washington, dance in the District is in a state of rediscovery.  

“I intentionally put the ‘re’ before ‘discovery’ because I don’t think all of it is innovation and new and never seen before,” Haynes tells City Paper, referring to conversations in the local dance community. “Some of the contributions to the art are not necessarily new additions, but rather looking at ways to, now, shine a spotlight or create opportunities for some of the richness in dance that’s already been here.”

D.C. has no shortage of dance culture. “The array of dance forms present in this city is mind-blowing,” says Haynes. Washington’s vast offerings stem from different cultural styles and genres of dance as well as subgenres. Historically, however, due to various barriers and policies, Haynes adds, “what actually makes it into the public eye is limited.” 

But that’s finally starting to change thanks, in part, to the pandemic. COVID’s forced pause on everyday life created an opportunity for people, artists, and organizations to connect with their communities, which is exactly what Dance Institute of Washington did. By no means was it easy, but Haynes points to the silver linings of limitations, which can breed innovation. “They also breed greater connectivity, greater collaboration, greater exchange of ideas—because resources are finite, and we can’t just continue to move independently,” she says. 

With the space and time created by COVID, the city’s dance community is recentering its focus to finally celebrate D.C. born, raised, and rooted choreographers, companies, and dancers. Haynes, who’s talking with external partners now more than ever before, believes programming at local dance institutions already looks different. Directors are asking: “how [are we] connecting and uplifting what’s already happening?”

“When a city starts to do that then you know something special is happening,” says Haynes.“And it’s so strategic and a complete optimization of the richness the city has always had, to be honest, but has somewhat struggled to showcase on a national level.”

If programming is a sign of change, so too is funding. In August, DIW was awarded $1 million courtesy of a House appropriation bill secured by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton as part of a $21 million Community Project Funding package. 

Every year since 2016, Haynes says DIW has spent resources, “in time, money, and energy that we did not have to sustain the kind of work that translated into the kind of outcomes that the city needed.” She pauses before repeating: “Not that the city wanted, that the city needed.”

Since its founding in 1987, the minority-led organization has provided pre-professional dance training to advance equity and representation in the field. Aside from teaching artistic excellence, the school incorporates programs, such as life-building skills, academic discipline, emotional support, and nutritional guidance, designed to eliminate barriers to success for underserved youth.

“Those are vehicles that help the public education system,” explains Haynes. “More kids graduate high school because they got to participate in a program like Dance Institute. And what I’ve been saying is that intervention work is expensive.” 

And burnout, especially for Black teachers and administrators of color, is high, she notes. Haynes became executive director in 2016 after founder Fabian Barnes died. While she is confident in DIW’s work, she says, “As a new ED, a young ED, a Black ED, a woman ED—you name it, I didn’t have the luxury of asking for funding for an idea.”    

The funding from Congress will go toward supporting the work DIW has been doing on a limited budget for years. “I cried when I learned about the outcome,” says Haynes. “In terms of what it meant to the organization, it meant people saw value in what we’ve been doing.” 

In addition to that recognition, this summer Haynes became a recipient for the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund, which seeks to amplify voices fighting for racial justice, connect new and established Black leaders, and support Black-led efforts to build economic and political power for their communities. And in July, the Kennedy Center honored Haynes as an Emerging Leader by Dance in the DMV.

The support gives Haynes and DIW a moment to take a well-deserved deep breath. (“It’s in those moments of catching your breath that innovation and critical pivots are made and discovered,” says Haynes. “If those moments aren’t existing—that’s when we wake up 30 years later doing the same work and the problem hasn’t gotten any better.”) But they’re already expanding. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, DIW added a black box theater to its space. Likewise, their mission is expanding to look at the larger dance community with the same equity lens to examine how DIW can impact different players within the city’s arts landscape.

“We’ve all been in the trenches these last two years,” says Haynes. “I see that as a tremendous opportunity. So I can come to this with really fresh eyes.”