Australian Dancer and Choreographer Sarah J. Ewing Calls the Hill Home

The CityDance Ignite Artist presents pieces throughout the neighborhood while giving back

A young Australian woman in the Big Apple on vacation takes a leap of faith, and on a whim goes on a single dance audition during her week-long stay. Days later and half a world away she gets an email that will change her life and launch her promising dance and choreography career. 

Sounds like something straight out of a movie, doesn’t it? For Hill resident and CityDance Ignite Artist Sarah Ewing it’s just a part of how she came to settle in Washington, DC, all the way from Melbourne, Australia, and came to call the Hill community home for the better part of the past decade.

A Dancer’s Journey

Ewing’s introduction to dance began at just five years old, when she took classes at a ballet school held in the local church hall. She continued ballet throughout her adolescence, but it was not until she was 15 that she discovered her real passion strayed from traditional dance disciplines – it was modern dance and choreography that felt like home to her. The theme of “home” would later become an important theme in one of her pieces. 

She continued to study modern dance, and during her second year of college she was accepted into a month-long summer dance program in Montreal followed by a six-month exchange program in Cologne, Germany. After her stay in Canada she decided to fly to Germany via New York City and spend a week in the infamous “city that never sleeps.” “I wanted to see where ‘Sex and the City’ was filmed, it was very silly – a vacation. I was talking to a salesperson in one of those large department stores, and she said, ‘You should go on an audition while you are in New York!’ It’s the quintessential thing to do. So I went, and I got the job, and three months later I moved to Washington, DC.” Her degree on hold, she continued to extend her short-term visa. It eventually became clear she had found a good fit, and a good place to call home – Capitol Hill.

She has been here eight and a half years and, while bouncing around different apartments, she’s never left the neighborhood. 

Ewing is now with CityDance as one of four OnStage Ignite Artists, in addition to heading her own professional troupe, S.J. Ewing & Dancers. OnStage Ignite is a program that supports talented dancers from all over the world by providing rehearsal space at Strathmore in Maryland and assisting with the nuts-and-bolts administrative side of being an artist, everything from assistance editing grant applications or helping with marketing, to sourcing performance venues. 

Australian Homeland

Earlier in the year Ewing received a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF). She knew about the Hill Center through a friend, who suggested she contact them as a potential venue to perform her piece “Australian Homeland.” The piece was originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center and performed at the Millennium Stage last year. Ewing is interested in the concept of “home” and uses her native Australia as a backdrop to explore how diverse populations call the same place home, and the struggle that often occurs between cultures.

“It’s about Australia, and like a lot of countries, it has an enormous history. We had waves of Europeans arrive even though there was a large indigenous population already residing there with its own rich history. There’s a large Greek population in northern Australia, a huge population of Vietnamese people. It’s this big melting pot, very similar to America. I was interested in exploring how all these different people and cultures call Australia home and how they coexist.” Ewing further stresses that although the piece uses Australia, the theme is a universal one – “Why do we call home ‘home’? Sometimes it’s through someone we meet and want to stay with, sometimes it’s through our jobs, and sometimes it’s through thousands of years of bloodline; everyone has their own reasons for defining it,” she explains.

Ewing was thrilled to receive a grant from CHCF, especially since it comes from her own backyard. “It was really exciting to find out about the grant, and to come from a funding body that really is the community. To be supported to do my own work in what is now my home was really cool,” she says. This past September, Ewing and her dance company performed the piece outside at the Hill Center. Participants in CityDance’s DREAM program, their flagship community program, also performed at the Hill Center along with Ewing.

Community Outreach

DREAM is a 32-week after-school program for elementary students in third through fifth grades, offered at schools across the city. Participants receive two two-hour sessions of dance class a week. The program’s goal is to use dance as a form of youth development by teaching children to work collaboratively, build confidence, and instill a connection to their community through performances and field trips. 

Ewing recognizes that not all children will take naturally to dance, but the program strives to tease out a child’s strengths and nurture them in an effective way. Ewing recalls a particularly withdrawn student in one of her DREAM classes. Instead of chastising the student, Ewing asked her to be her helper: setting up for class, organizing the music, moving tables and chairs. “It took maybe two days and her whole attitude changed from the child that had no interest, to being up in front at the center saying, ‘C’mon, Ms. Sarah is talking you, better listen to this!’ And then that translates back to her other academics as well.”

The program is so popular that in 2012 CityDance created a DREAM Alumni program. This allowed DREAM graduates to continue their dance studies through middle and high school and also have an opportunity to mentor younger participants, apply for summer internships with CityDance, and receive assistance on college applications. There are currently also three students from this program who received scholarships to CityDance’s School & Conservatory.

Future Projects

On the heels of “Australia Homeland” Ewing is working on new projects and collaborating with two of her fellow Ignite Artists for performances that will debut at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, slated for February 2015. Dubbed “Intersections,” Ewing explains that they will explore how dance in their different cultures works together. Asanga Domask, a dancer and choreographer from Sri Lanka, specializes in traditional Sri Lankan dance and has been lauded for her efforts as a cultural ambassador of Sri Lanka. Robert Priore, from Buffalo, N.Y., is CityDance’s current choreographer-in-residence and is known for his athletic style and commanding aesthetic. “The whole point of having arts institutes like CityDance,” notes Ewing, “is to share and learn with each other and have a constant dialogue.” 

Sounds like Sarah Ewing has found a home in Capitol Hill – and the community is lucky to have such a talented and dedicated dancer, choreographer, and teacher in our neighborhood.