It’s almost showtime, and China Smith is wrangling butterflies.
The 4- and 5-year-old dancers flutter in a wide circle, their ballet shoes tip-tapping across the AISD Performing Arts Center stage as their intricate wings flow behind them.
Once they step into position, Smith pauses to show a wayward monarch where to stand.
“Use this line, baby,” she says.
Satisfied with their run-through, she dismisses the group and takes her place amid the older students, who speak in hushed voices in the shroud of darkness backstage.
As the curtains begin to pull open for Ballet Afrique’s May recital, “Taking Flight,” one of her students, huddled closely to her side, requests a hug.
“Ms. China,” she confides, “I’m nervous.”
“You have got this,” Smith responds confidently, then adds, “I’m nervous too.”
It’s been 10 years since Smith created Ballet Afrique, a contemporary dance company that’s gained a reputation for showing African-American girls and anyone who doesn’t feel included in traditional dance and arts communities that they too have a place in Austin. But despite the fact that she’s opened doors for hundreds of dancers over the past decade, Smith knows she can’t get complacent. This recital, like every event Ballet Afrique puts on, has too much riding on it.
Finding her rhythm
Growing up in East Austin, Smith, 42, was a stellar athlete and inquisitive child who frequently attended cultural and arts events with her dad.
“He would take me to (concert venue) Liberty Lunch, and I would be the little kid there, just dancing,” Smith said. “That’s what my family did. We would dance.”
Despite her love of movement and the many performances she took in, she said traditional dance instruction simply wasn’t something that was available to her or her other African-American friends.
“Dance was not a choice for me,” she said. “When I got to high school and could join the dance program, I didn’t want to be in there with those girls who had been dancing since they were 5. I felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t have any education.”
Smith went to Austin High and was offered a track scholarship at Louisiana State University but decided not to pursue track after breaking her ankle during her senior year of high school. Instead, she accepted a sports-medicine scholarship at Blinn College in Brenham, where she would later dance in a campus talent show on a whim — and win. Weekend trips home to Austin were spent salsa dancing at a club called Calle Ocho.
“That’s where I learned my first merengue. It was so fascinating to me, the culture behind it, this movement that had history,” she said, adding that merengue is said to have evolved in part from a dance done by slaves whose feet were shackled while working in fields. “That was the first time I heard about anything African ever in dance, and that was my first class, just a dance class at a nightclub.”
Once she earned her associate degree, Smith moved back to Austin, where she studied with Ana Maria Maynard at the Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance Center and later enrolled in the dance program at Austin Community College. She was particularly interested in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin dance, honing in on the ways culture and motion could blend, and traveled to the Caribbean to meet dancers there.
She was working at a charter school in 2008 when she decided it was time to open her own dance company. She envisioned a place that offered traditional instruction with an infusion of modern and African movement, where African-American girls could go and see other people who looked like them.
She put out a call for adult dancers to join her company, which she named Ballet Afrique. She arrived at the March audition — which fell the day after she gave birth to her daughter, Solimar, who arrived early — to find that while many talented artists had responded, not a single one was African-American.
“The mission was to have a company where people could see dancers like me, and there were none at the time, or none that came to the audition,” Smith said. “I felt like there was nothing for kids to see that reflected their culture. It was very frustrating.”
She began to assemble an adult company from dancers in the community whom she found and “stalked,” she said, laughing, and also started offering children’s classes to about 10 students at the George Washington Carver Museum. Smith started a tradition of checking in with her students at the beginning of class and asking them to share whatever was on their minds, even if it was something as simple as what they’d eaten that day.
“I want them to know that their life is important to me, and what they had for breakfast is a conversation that a 2-year-old can have,” Smith said. “Even my older moms will say, ‘We could go to any dance studio, but the fact that you have a conversation with my daughter before you start dancing is why we come here.’”
She also empowered her students by letting them know they, and only they, were in charge of their bodies.
“I’ll ask, ‘Is it OK that I touch you and move you over here?’ and I love it when a 2-year-old says, ‘No, you can’t touch me right now.’ They think they’re telling the teacher no, but I’m like, yes, you’re doing exactly what I want you to know!” Smith said. “You’re in control of your body, and dance is really important in that aspect.”
In 2015, Smith received a call from a mom who was searching for a dance company for her 3-year-old daughter, Tessa.
Tessa was adopted from Ethiopia and absolutely loved to sing and dance, her mom said. She was also a triple amputee — she did not have legs or her right arm.
“I was apprehensive because I don’t want someone to take Tessa because they feel sorry for her or pity her for her disability,” said Tessa’s mom, Meagan Brown. “I think it changes how someone perceives my daughter if they feel sorry for her.”
Smith, who had never worked with an amputee before, saw no reason she couldn’t work with Tessa. She invited her to start classes at Ballet Afrique, which at that time was operating inside Highland Mall. Tessa quickly made an impression.
“(A few of Tessa’s classmates) were saying how scary it was to ride the escalator up to class and how dangerous it was because your foot could get trapped,” Smith recalled. “Tessa is just listening to the conversation and she’s like, ‘Well, I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t have feet.’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, wow, she just taught me a really big lesson.’”
Tessa’s lessons kept on coming. In getting to know her, Smith recognized that Tessa had natural musicality.
“I didn’t even see her as a baby. I saw her as an artist,” Smith said. “I really wanted to work with that artist.”
Smith choreographed a four-minute dance they would perform together in the May 2015 recital. As the piece began, the two were separate, each moving in and out of the center of the stage in a wavelike motion before combining into one graceful, purposeful and organic figure. As the spotlight followed Tessa, she glowed in its light.
When the song ended, Tessa raised her left hand, then bent in an exaggerated bow as the crowd rose in a boisterous standing ovation, a cry of “Beautiful!” echoing in the room.
The glow would follow Tessa even after the spotlight faded.
“She said, ‘Mom, I can’t wait to go back on that stage again and have everybody watch me dance,’” Brown said, choking up at the memory of that day. “China looked at Tessa and celebrated who she was. That she could choreograph with her abilities to make something so beautiful, that’s rare, if not impossible.”
That day was just as transformative for Smith.
“At that moment, my vision for Ballet Afrique changed. I realized that I’m not just here for the little girl that’s black,” said Smith, adding that while her students are majority African-American, she also has white students, biracial students and students of other ethnicities and backgrounds. “People who feel like dance has been unobtainable to them for whatever reason — maybe there’s a language barrier, maybe there’s a cultural barrier — I want those people to come to Ballet Afrique and say, ‘This is a place for me.’”
Making an impression
That same year, change was in the air.
Austin Community College had purchased Highland Mall, and all current tenants, including Ballet Afrique, needed to relocate.
Smith began reaching out to community leaders, hoping someone might have a connection that would lead to a new space.
She met Gregory Smith, president and CEO of the Austin Revitalization Authority, over coffee and told him about the work she was doing with Austin’s African-American youth. Gregory Smith, who has no relation to China Smith, invited her to speak at a meeting of the African American Resource Advisory Commission, which advises the City Council on issues relating to the quality of life for the city’s African-American community.
“I could see her passion and dedication, and those are the kinds of folks that the Austin Revitalization Authority likes to help,” Gregory Smith said, “those that like to help themselves and need a nudge or two to take them to the next level.”
He expected Smith to come to the meeting alone. Instead, she brought a large group of students and parents.
“You’ve got to be careful what you ask for. I was really inviting just her to come and speak, and she brought 30 or 40 people with her,” Gregory Smith said, chuckling as he remembered the ruckus. “That made a big impression on the commission. She got a lot of attention and a lot of advice. I guess they took it upon themselves to help her out.”
As a result of connections made at that meeting, Ballet Afrique secured a new rented space near the Austin Area Urban League on Cameron Road.
Gregory Smith has since invited Ballet Afrique to perform at various local events, remarking that it’s one of the few community dance groups he’s seen that’s predominantly African-American.
“She’s committed to ballet and dance; she’s a dancer, and she’s committed to these youth and trying to instill them with this art,” he said. “To have an African-American organization that’s focused on that, that’s phenomenal.”
Smith said that while she’s grateful for the support she’s received, she never loses sight of the fact that more can be done, especially in a city like Austin, where African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the general population.
“Because I am where I live and there’s not a lot of exposure to black arts, it also leaves me a really great window to be thriving in it,” she said. “If there were 20 black dance companies in Austin, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. In a way, that’s pretty neat. But there is so much work to do.”
Part of the work that needs to be done, Smith said, is showing white families how their experiences and interactions in daily life may be different from those of black families.
“It’s just important that all parents understand about each other’s differences,” Smith said. “While black parents have to give their kids ‘the talk’ about how to behave in front of people of authority, for people who are not black, there’s room for that talk, too. (One way to foster understanding) is to put your child in a position where they are the minority like a lot of times we have to do with our kids.”
Becoming a lifeline
It’s a steamy July Monday and Smith is standing in a circle in the Ballet Afrique studio with the five attendees of Camp ConfiDANCE, a weeklong camp she created to empower girls 9 and older in areas including team building, leadership, hygiene, weight training, dance and nutrition.
Among the most outgoing in the group is Ava Dallesandro, who is 10 and has been dancing with Smith since she was 2.
Smith has seen Ava through highs and lows, including a scary episode two years ago when she ended up at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas for eight days because her right arm was temporarily paralyzed.
“Ms. China is really unflappable in a crisis,” said Karen Valby, Ava’s mom. “She said, ‘Oh, no big deal, we have class on Thursday, so we’ll just hold it in the Dell Children’s lobby.’”
Later that week, Ava, with IV bandages on the insides of both elbows, and her classmates, clad in red leotards, twirled in the lobby of Dell Children’s to the song “Opportunity” from “Annie.” Smith had declared it a “face and feet day,” so as to not make Ava feel left out because of her arm.
“Ms. China just held her normal hour of class with the same expectation and sincere praise when the girls deserved it,” said Valby, whose daughter Zinnia, 3, also dances at Ballet Afrique. “Ava danced in the recital a month later, and Ms. China switched her position so she wasn’t as dependent on her right arm. You want to sort of weep seeing your child be brave in these circumstances, but to see an adult love her like this, with her buddies in their leotards, I’ll never forget it.”
Valby, a white adoptive mom to African-American daughters, called Smith a “mother figure” and Ballet Afrique “a lifeline” for her family.
“My social circle is so much more vibrant and varied because of Ballet Afrique and, most importantly, it’s my girls’ only chance to know they’re going to be the majority in the room,” Valby said. “It’s such a beloved institution in the world of dance, and her reputation is so amazing. I do wish Austin was more aware of the treasure she is and we as an arts community were more able to support her and her vision. It makes me sad that she struggles each year and fundraises a little each year to put on these amazing recitals. We owe her so much, my family does, but I also think we could do better as a city to step up and support her mission and the mission of underserved communities in a way that’s truer to what we say our ethos is as a city.”
Reedy Spigner, a bona fide “dance dad” who has proudly watched his 10-year-old daughter, Emily, go from a tutu-wearing toddler to a confident dancer under Smith’s tutelage, said finding Ballet Afrique has been a blessing.
“It’s definitely more than learning ballet,” Spigner said. “It’s learning life lessons, interacting with other kids with the same interests as you that are also African-American, and having an African-American role model to emulate.”
Spigner has no doubt that, if she sets her mind to it, Emily can be the next Misty Copeland.
“It’s almost like I feel like I’m at the New York Ballet watching the girls dance,” he said. “This is something she could continue in high school and college, and maybe she’ll become a professional dancer. That’s the kind of confidence Ms. China instills in these kids. If this is your dream, let’s go for it.”
Looking to the future
Camp ConfiDANCE is one of many camps Smith runs to help pay rent — which doubled when Ballet Afrique switched locations — when enrollment slows in the summer. She also had to crowdfund $20,000 during the move so she could install a proper dance floor in the new space.
She dreams of a day when she doesn’t have to worry that her life’s work could disappear with the change of a lock, a time when she can focus solely on dancing and teaching and helping children who need it instead of being preoccupied by the business of it all.
It’s a dream she shares with her daughter, Solimar Lott, 10, who, along with her brother, Blayze Lott, 11, grew up dancing at Ballet Afrique.
“Whatever the outcome is, I hope my children will be like, ‘Man, my mom built that from nothing,’” Smith said.
Solimar, one of the attendees of Camp ConfiDANCE, listens intently as her mom offers tips about being a good friend.
“Even if somebody appears to be really strong,” Smith tells the campers, “that doesn’t mean they don’t need support.”
Solimar knows her mom needs support too. Solimar’s goal is to be a dancer who’s “as good as my mom or maybe even better,” and to one day run the studio with her.
“People should know that she has come a long way to make Ballet Afrique the best dance company she can,” said Solimar, who enjoys getting manicures, cooking and having “mini-parties” with her mom in their rare downtime. “She’s done everything she could to make her dancers happy.”
Whether she’s herding butterflies onstage, teaching tweens about confidence or dancing in front of community leaders, Smith says she will always remain 100 percent committed to spreading her love of dance in Austin.
“When you come through that door, I want you to immediately know you’re accepted. You could have no legs, be white, you can be brown, I don’t care what you are,” Smith said. “And when you come into this room, you are going to learn about African culture, that’s for sure, because it’s important for everybody to build an appreciation and value for it. It doesn’t work if just black people feel appreciation and value of black arts. Ballet Afrique is really for Austin. All of Austin.”
Where: 8011 Cameron Road, Suite 500
Ballet Afrique offers classes for ages 2 to adult and is registering students for the fall semester. Call 512-228-7060 or visit balletafriqueaustin.org for more information.