Dwana Adiaha Smallwood was sitting on Oprah’s couch when she first uttered the words that have defined her career: “dance is my oxygen.” It came out, naturally, when she said it, but that’s the exact kind of profound statement that people are prone to making while discussing life with Oprah Winfrey. And, as life works for most of us, we have to keep breathing oxygen to stay alive. For Smallwood, she has to keep dancing to thrive.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant-born Smallwood learned to dance at an early age, which led to her tenure as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1995-2007. She was proclaimed “one of the greatest modern dancers” by Vogue magazine and danced before millions as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a part of her “The Best…” series. In addition to The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ms. Smallwood has graced many American television shows including Sesame Street, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Vibe and The Kennedy Center Honors. In 2013, Smallwood was featured on Oprah: Where Are They Now on the OWN network.
Smallwood earned her initial public accolades as the first place winner of the International Africa Arts Festival Star Search in her native Bed-Stuy. Since, she has been featured in American Public Broadcasting’s “Great Performances,” and the documentary “Beyond the Steps.” She also appears in the documentary “A Hymn for Alvin Ailey.” She has graced the cover of Dance Magazine three times and was featured in Vogue, National Geographic, Girl Scout Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. In 2005 Ms. Smallwood was celebrated as one of the “50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers” by New York Magazine. The following year, New York Moves Magazine named her “2006 Power Woman.”
In addition to being a gifted dancer, the five-time first place winner of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater is also a talented designer. She often designs and sews her own costumes for her choreography. She also has spent a lifetime mentoring young women, helping them find their own fire within and how to nurture and help it grow. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Ile-Ase in 2009 for her continued support of the world’s young women.
In January 2009, Smallwood joined the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in South Africa, where she was the architect for the school’s dance program, birthing the OWLAG Dance Company. Smallwood was soon promoted to Co-Curricular Coordinator before being appointed the Director of Student Affairs in 2011.
In 2013, Smallwood left OWLAG to take on the next leg of her journey. In 2014 she will realize a life-long dream by giving birth again. This time to the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Dance is still her oxygen and she’s breathing it in with abandon.