Under mysterious circumstances, Washington, D.C. has lost one of its most dynamic leaders, Fabian Barnes, founder of the Dance Institute of Washington (DIW). More than an arts leader, Mr. Barnes used dance to positively impact a generation of Washington children.
Awards for Barnes included Oprah’s “Points of Light” in 2000, CNN’s “American Heroes” in 2001, and Washingtonian Magazine’s “Washingtonians of the Year” in 2008. Barnes built DIW from a modest summer program to a full time dance academy with its own building in Columbia Heights serving students of all ages, abilities, and ambitions. In 2003 DIW received DC’s Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Arts Education and in 2011 the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, awarded by the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Arthur Espinoza, executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, wrote, “I was deeply saddened when I received the news of Fabian Barnes’ death. Fabian was admired and respected by the arts community in the Washington, DC area and this is truly a great loss. My sincere sympathy and condolences to the Barnes family and that of the Dance Institute of Washington.”
City support played a significant role in the development of DIW. Anthony Gittens, executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities from 1997 to 2008, wrote “The transition from artist to institution builder is rare… It’s not easy to maintain high standards for yourself and others. Fabian did that.”
Barnes was born May 11, 1959 in Seattle, Washington, and began dancing at age 11. At age 16 he joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice, and at age 18 he moved to New York to apprentice with Dance Theater of Harlem. He rose to soloist with Dance Theater of Harlem, and before the conclusion of his performing career began teaching and organizing summer dance academies. At age 37, in 1996, he retired from Dance Theater of Harlem to work full time on the Dance Institute of Washington.
While friends and colleagues were aware that he was struggling with an illness, the circumstances surrounding his death are uncertain and his passing was a shock. Mr. Barnes was expected to participate in a meeting with staff and board members on Thursday April 7. When he did not, two members of the DIW community went to check on him at his home. Receiving no response the police were notified and gained admittance and at that time his death was discovered.
In a prepared statement DIW board chair Marcellous Frye wrote, “We would like to offer our sincere condolences and sympathy to his family and friends, and all who Fabian inspired. The Board of Directors will continue to support collaborative efforts to guide DIW’s dedication and commitment to our students that Fabian established as cornerstones of our school.”
Fabian Barnes talks about the importance of dance in his life, 2011.