Ballet Afrique’s China Smith Loves the Kids

China Smith was in middle school at J.E. Pearce Middle School when she realized how wide the opportunity gap was between her peers who looked like her, and the white students who lived on the West side of town.

“I don’t know whose bright idea it was to take us on a field trip to Westlake,” she recalls, “but all it did was show us how impoverished, how lacking we had it. Inequality in our face.”

“I will never forget that deafening silence on the way back,” Smith says. “And it changed me. I started thinking about the way that we are talked to – the expectation of our abilities. … It felt like we were expendable. And that is a terrible, terrible feeling to have.”

Even though she didn’t have the words to articulate any of those things she was feeling at the time, she knew then that she needed to do something to help make sure other little Black children never felt the way she felt that day. At a minimum, she knew she needed to develop an outlet that showed them they are worthy of nice things and safe, affirming spaces too. Spaces where they could just be, and not have to confront the constant barrage of microaggressions and implicit bias they may have faced elsewhere in the state. 

you can hear through music how big and brilliant you are, how big the world is,

It wasn’t yet clear to her at 12 years old what that route would be. She wasn’t really into dance; she was a star athlete. But her father – a martial artist, UC Berkeley grad, Black Panther, and music lover – had an incredible music collection, and she did like staging productions to music in her living room. Smith says she remembers how powerful she felt when she’d sneak into the living room and play her daddy’s records and listen to the excellence that poured through Monk’s piano keys, Miles’ trumpet, the rhymes of Last Poets, and the silky sound of Lena Horne’s voice. 

“There’s something in it that even if you’ve never seen or been anywhere else, you can hear through music how big and brilliant you are, how big the world is, and that allows you to build an appreciation for other ppl in the world,” Smith says. “Then I discovered African music and I felt that it could change the way that Black children saw themselves, the genius that was inside of African American jazz, and really just the diaspora of African American music all over the world.”

Years later, that appreciation for music of the diaspora would become the foundation for Austin’s only all-Black dance company when it opened in 2008. Smith lights up talking about her students and their families. In fact, there’s not much else she wants to dwell on.

 “I may not ever reach my highest potential. I am not a businesswoman. I’m just a passionate artist who cares about these kids. I may not ever take Ballet Afrique where it needs to be … but what I do have is this legacy of amazing little girls, one going to Harvard, one going to [dance with the famed] Alvin Ailey [dance company],” she says. 

You just pour your heart into kids, and you just love them

“One of them got into UT Austin’s dance program, and the one going to Harvard – she’s going to major in biomedical engineering, but her entrance essay was about her experience at Ballet Afrique and describes the aspect of Black dance and African dance and how, even though she’s going into biomedical engineering, it helped her create an objective and a way of doing things. It made me cry for hours. Because you never know. You just pour your heart into kids, and you just love them, but you never know the impact that you’re having.” 

It’s not surprising that Smith gets emotional thinking about the success of her students. Most of them have been with her since they were 3, 4, or 5 years old. Some of them even stayed with her in her home. Now, on the heels of the final performance for a group of girls who she’s literally helped raise, Smith says she just hopes the greater Austin community rallies around them and gives them a proper send-off at their last show with Ballet Afrique on January 22 at Waterloo Park.

“It took a whole village – every mama, every volunteer, every donor to get these kids where they are,” she says. “For the past 13 years, Austin has been pouring in support to Ballet Afrique, and this is the result. We did it. We did it as this community. And this is the time – come, and let’s send them off together.”

The production is the only all-Black production of “The Nutcracker” in the region, and Smith is incredibly proud of how far not just the company, but her students, have come. She’s particularly proud of the ways they continue to give back to their communities and help contribute to a stronger legacy for the dance company that raised them. Many come back to teach in the school, and one, Terrance Carson returned to serve as Ballet Afrique’s associate artistic director after getting his degree in dance from Texas Christian University (TCU). 

“It’s an amazing thing to go from being a little kid, and knowing at 12 years old how this music could change my friends’ lives …  to finally be at a place where I’m seeing it working,” Smith says. “I never expected to build any dance academy. I just never expected to see it take formation in this capacity.”

The performance of Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite is Saturday, Jan 22, on stage at Waterloo Park, and tickets are available online.

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