Think of all of the classically trained dancers you’ve ever heard of or seen perform, whether they dance salsa, modern, or ballet. How many have you seen on stage? How many have you seen on screen? Yes, Dancing With the Stars counts. Now line up all those dancers, side by side, and tell me how many of those dancers are women of color. How many are black women? Can you name them? While Misty Copeland and Debbie Allen may come to mind for many, your list of dancers of color was probably small, if not nonexistent. For that very reason, Andre C. Dunwoody has spent the last seven years teaching young black girls that they aren’t just limited to certain dance genres when aspiring to dance.
Dunwoody Dance 5678 was founded by Dunwoody as he transitioned back to life in Rochester, starting a new chapter in his life. He sought to also fulfill a dream of seeing more brown and black girls in leotards who had the opportunity to become classically trained in the art of dance.
“For our demographic it was cliché. And by cliché, I mean it was hip-hop or street dancing. And I thought ‘Where are the little brown girls in tights?’’” said Dunwoody. “I wanted a studio and I knew I needed a niche, because there are a thousand studios, but not one dedicated to girls of color to dance classically, because not all of them want to do hip-hop.”
Seven years later, Dunwoody Dance has 41 dancers, 16 classes, two competition teams and 9 trophies. He can also now boast of some of his students who recently had their first professional performances in the Nutcracker.
A true believer in tough love, Dunwoody seeks to instill discipline in each and every one of his students.
“My teaching style is just like me: loud, flamboyant, overtop. It’s in your face and stern. And I only require two things when you came to dance: tough skin and leave your ego at the door.” Though it may look like he’s overly tough on his students, they attribute his tough love to their success and their love for dance. “Don’t let me get in your head. Don’t take what I say personally. Remember all the high fives I gave you. All the hugs. All the ‘good girls.’”
One of his dancers, 10 year old, Jani Miller, who started dance a year ago in Jazz, Hip Hop, Tap, and Ballet, found Dunwoody Dance when her sister looked up best dance studios in Rochester and asked her mom to sign her up. Aspiring to be like Sierra Leonean-American dancer, Michaela DePrince, Dunwoody Dance has allowed Miller to step out of her comfort zone.
“When I started, I was really shy. But now I look forward to coming to class and dancing, especially with my friends. Even though Mr.[Dunwoody] yells at you sometimes, it really shows that he loves you and wants you to do well,” she said.
Fifteen-year-old dancer, Angel Bryant, has been dancing since she was 6 years old, doing Jazz, Tap, Hip Hop, Ballet, and Modern. Having started dancing three years before the studio opened, she’s seen a world of difference since studying under Dunwoody. “Me, as a dancer, I’ve grown a lot. My technique has gotten a lot better, and even my confidence has gotten better since dancing with [Dunwoody]. Before, I was a really shy dancer and now I’m not” said Bryant. “Dancing here is probably one of the best experiences you’ll ever have especially from a teacher who actually has experience because dancing takes a lot out of you, physically and emotionally.”
Dunwoody himself is a classically trained dancer whose journey began as a self-taught dancer, influenced by the videos of Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Big Daddy Kane. He then went on to attend School of the Arts, received a scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College, then another to the Ballet Hispanico School. From there, he started teaching open classes at the Bailey and Broadway Dance Center, participating in dance festivals, and dancing for modern dance companies before beating stage four cancer and becoming his own boss.
“I’m a big advocate and believer in achieving your dreams. I believe dreams have no expiration date on them. I didn’t start my first technical dance class until I was 15. I didn’t start my first ballet class until I was 19,” said Dunwoody. “I’ve heard a lot of ‘no’s. I’ve been cut a lot. But I want all the little boys and girls to know, no matter what your dreams are, there is no expiration date. In my age and in my career, you’re supposed to be hanging up your shoes, not just polishing them off. But things really just started to pan out for me in these last two to three years.”
Dunwoody’s plans for his studio only get bigger. His short-term goal is to start a summer dance program for dance, music, and art this summer. After that, he hopes to get a bigger studio space for more dancers, and eventually open up his on complex with an athletics center, arts hall, and an academic center catered specifically to boys and girls of color.