How China Smith is Changing the Face of Ballet

Photo: Michael SmithBy Karen Valby

Her back quivering in plank position, 17-year-old Danielle looks ready to give up. "Don't you quit!" says China Smith, Danielle's dance instructor and founder of the Austin dance studio Ballet Afrique. Smith's youth company is nearing the end of its rigorous class warm-up of barre stretches and pliés. With her hand on Danielle's back, Smith turns her attention to the other teenagers in the room, exhorting them to push themselves to their limit: "I want you to know that feeling where you're so tired, just beat down physically and mentally--and still you trust in your power."

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If Smith demands a lot of her students, it's because she knows they're working against enormous odds: the presiding belief that classical dance is the exclusive privilege of white girls from the well-to-do side of town. "I wanted to dance more than anything as a child and didn't have access to it," Smith says. "My idea of ballet didn't include anybody who looked like me." In private, she would spend long afternoons choreographing routines to her father's jazz records; in college she worked up the nerve to begin formal training. Later, as a dance teacher in her old neighborhood, Smith would take her students to local performances. "They'd have trouble staying enthusiastic," she says. "But once a year, when Alvin Ailey"--the seminal African-American dance troupe from New York City--"came to town, I could see them connect."

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In 2008 Smith started Ballet Afrique to bring the love of dance to a new population and now teaches close to 100 students ranging in age from 3 to 50; Smith's adult company of six female dancers serve as teachers and mentors, or "Aunties," to the younger community. In between choreographing and performing in local shows, Smith teaches her students a blend of classical ballet and modern and African dance. One pupil, a curvy 16-year-old named Ryane, recently danced the role of Clara in her high school's hip-hop-inflected production of The Nutcracker. Says her mother, Jonni: "It's been beautiful to watch Ryane develop into who she is now, to look up at her onstage just breaking through walls. Miss China had a dream for her, and she's developed her in so many ways. She cares about my child as much as I do.

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