Della's dream: No barriers


The Mirror

African dance instructor Della Westerfield doesn't believe in the word "can't."

Her dream is to start a multi-cultural dance academy in Federal Way for young people to experience each others' cultures. She wants to direct the academy to high-risk, disadvantaged youth who might make poor choices, like drugs or gangs, for support and friendship, and she's not willing to take no for an answer.

In fact, she's so committed, she holds dance lessons in an upstairs room of her home.

Tall and supple, with black eyeliner lining her eyes, Della stood at the front of her class of chattering, giggling girls who wore vibrant wraps, called lapas, twisted and tied around their waists and necks.

"Alright, your talking should cease right around now," she said as she hit play on the tape recorder. The rhythmic beating of drums rose to the sloped ceiling of the carpeted bedroom-turned-studio.

As Della explained the count, the nine young women and girls began to move to the beat. One after the other, they shimmied toward the center of the room, bright smiles, eyes fixed on Della, who danced in place in front of them.

The pace grew faster, the music became more intense and the girls swooped their arms in the air — "Remember, Melissa, bird wings," Della instructed — waved streamers, shimmied, jumped, and stomped their feet together.

A few minutes in, Della paused to explain, then started again, counting "Five, six, seven, eight ...." She stopped again because 12-year-old Arielle Rogers, a three-year dance veteran, was pivoting on the wrong foot.

She sprinkled the dance lesson with physical analogies to get the body postures right — "Keep those arms up like you're a robot," and, "Think of that ice cube on your back."

A little more than halfway through the hour, Della stopped the dancing for a basic lesson in body movement. "Everyone just do this," she said, pinching her shoulder blades together. "Now, rock your hips. Just roll back on your heels," she demonstrated.

The girls were winded from the workout. "Now, let's try to go through from the beginning again," Della said. The drums began. "Relax. When you relax, it's easier to move. When you tighten up, you get tired," she said. "And I want to see teeth!"

The dream

Della herself started dancing when she was 12 after a friend talked her into taking a class. "I had a red leotard. I still remember," she said. Her mom couldn't afford to put her through dance school with her father in and out of the hospital, so she'd dress up in her leotard and dance at home, pretending she was on stage, while her siblings watched TV.

She stopped dancing altogether when she married and had four children of her own. "I was busy raising kids," she said.

Later, her husband, a truck driver, was killed in a crash. "We had no insurance. We had to live on his social security," she said. She worked part-time so she'd be available for her young children and, like other moms, spent most of her time shuttling her daughters and sons to dance and sports activities.

When her youngest son was 13 and she was 42, she decided to do something for herself. She took up dance again, studied the art form and began teaching for the city of Federal Way and with Federal Way Public Schools.

Some kids couldn't afford to participate and she started to wonder what would happen if she taught privately and only charged $5.

That was the spark, the first glimmering of her dream, which she credits to God. "He gave us all talents and gifts. We can either hide our talent or pursue it. I could have said, Oh, I used to dance when I was 12. But I had a drive. It was coming deep from within," she said. "I didn't know I was going to end up in the schools, but now I love this."

Della started teaching out of her home and, from there, the vision grew into a full-blown multi-cultural dance academy directed toward disadvantaged kids.

The students would rotate each week to learn the dance, history and culture of another group, each of which would have their own studio decorated to represent their heritage. Once the kids danced together and started seeing the similarities among their cultures, she expects prejudices would begin to break down.

And there would be other lessons, too, besides how to move.

Della teaches her students about personal hygiene and healthy choices. She teaches them they're special and valuable, each unique and intelligent. She encourages them to make wise choices, to save themselves for someone special. She insists they get good grades and take their educations seriously. Regardless of body type, she teaches them they're beautiful, and insists they eat healthy diets and get exercise.

She's strict and she has high expectations of the girls, but she's also supportive and encouraging. That's taught her students moderation and discipline, brought shy girls out of themselves and discouraged foul language and attitude problems. "I teach them that you've got to love yourself first," she said. "We talk about respect and learning the history."

That history includes recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., but not with empty platitudes. Della wants her students to hear King, to understand the foundation he laid and the work that is demanded to realize his dream.

"I'm tired of us using Martin Luther King, Jr., his vision and what he stood for, dusting it off and taking it out the box like a Christmas ornament," she said. "What did he really die for? If he was alive today, what would he say? Would he be happy because we play his speech every year? Or would he wonder what we're doing now?"

For boys, Della started something like a slam poetry group, where young men learn to write poems or lyrics that are set to drum rhythms. One young man, a self-identified former gang member from Houston, participates in the Spoken Rhythm group.

He asked if they could have one day a week to eat pizza and talk about life. She said sure, and, one day a week, she orders pizza, pays for it herself, and they sit and talk about the challenges and perils of growing up.

It's been hard keeping it going. She said she almost lost her Ridge home. She takes care of her sick mother. She teaches dance Monday through Thursday at Decatur High School and Monday and Tuesday evenings at her home. She wants help. She wants other people to be committed to the kids.

Not giving up

Della's looking for a home for her academy, with walls and spaces that could be converted into the studios she envisions. She figured out the paperwork and submitted an application to become a nonprofit organization, and she's been sending out grant applications and working on fundraising.

She asked city officials if they could donate the old City Hall building, which the city owns, but city officials said state law prohibits them from donating public property. AMC Theater sits vacant downtown, but Della's not sure what, if anything, is being done with it. "Nothing offered or suggested," she said.

She's frustrated by what she sees as a lack of interest.

"I asked them a question: You've got the kids running rampant, dangling over a cliff, and you're holding on to them with one hand and holding onto the building with the other hand. Which would you let go of? Essentially, you let go of the kids," she said.

"I just want to get on the rooftop and say, You guys! Give it a chance. Give me a year, give me two years. This is different, yes, but are you willing to take a chance to make it work? I think it'd be an asset in the community and a pillar in the community. They kept going back to the dollar signs. I'm not giving up."

After the break in her upstairs studio, Della's students lined up single-file to shimmy, sway and jump toward an oval, full-length mirror on the other side of the room.

Drum beats filled the room with energy, but the girls were getting tired.

"Swoop those arms," Della instructed. "If you just hold them, it just looks like you're standing there holding something. If you swing those arms, it looks pretty."

"Pull those legs all the way up behind you," she said. "Back straight, rump out. Your back is straight. You're dignified."

By the end of class, the girls were getting tired and winded. Their arms weren't swooping quite so high, and their form was beginning to break down. Della corrected 9-year-old Jaida, who cried out that she couldn't do it. Della stopped abruptly and pointed to the sign on the wall forbidding the word "can't."

Jaida got back in line. When her turn was up again, Della crouched down next to her. "Give me that energy," she goaded. "Give me that energy." Jaida, laughing, gave it her best all the way to the mirror on the other side of the room. Della beamed at the little girl, and touched her on the forehead with her index finger.

"Good," she said.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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