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How the Viva School in DC contributes 'to a cultural shift' for dancers of color

"We are really contributing to a cultural shift in the arts." The Viva School is breaking stereotypes about body type and minorities in professional dance

WASHINGTON — High school senior Ashley Blake was told she'd never "make it" in dance because of her body type. Not only is she succeeding now in the contemporary arts, but Blake is also charting a course to be one of its leaders.   

She's a student at DC's Viva School of Dance near 10th and U Street in Northwest. The school is a pre-professional training school that prioritizes youth of color, ages 6 to 18.

"You can succeed in the professional world and not have to look the same as everyone else," Blake said in an interview with WUSA9.

After graduation, Blake is heading to Salve Regina University in Rhode Island where she's planning a double-major in dance and English. She wants to become a choreographer and a writer. 

Kelli Quinn, the school's co-founder and executive director, told WUSA9 the school has “a unique model of dance education." 

"We merge world-class dance training with leadership development to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow," she said.

The school opened in 2017 inside the former Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. 

The school offers full merit scholarships for its students but is not a school serving low-income students exclusively. It currently enrolls 52 students while hoping to grow to 75 in the near future. 

Quinn said its a school "for students who are naturally gifted in dance."

"It’s a calling. It’s a purpose. It’s a pathway to a career," she said.

Viva School is on its way to becoming a nonprofit organization, breaking off from CityDance DREAM. 

Of particular relevance and importance is the fact Viva School is breaking stereotypes about minorities in dance. 

"I think right now there's limited representation in the arts," co-founder and artistic director Chandini Darby said. "People of color are not represented equally. Here at the Viva School we are pushing those boundaries and we are really contributing to a cultural shift in the arts."

Sophomore Jakyah Baughns is among the students who are practicing up to 22 hours a week at Viva School. She's been involved in dance since kindergarten. 

"I hope to become a company member with a professional dance company," Baughns told WUSA9. "It's not easy. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. This is something that we really love to do. It’s not just for fun. It is very fun but it’s a lot of hard work." 

Baughns said she and her peers in dance aren't only athletes, they're creators. Part of the skill in dance is making their moves and routines look effortless. 

"We're merging world class training with leadership development and I think that’s what sets us apart," said Darby.

Learn more about the Viva School and it's annual concert on Saturday, May 21 HERE. 

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