China Smith of Ballet Afrique on black art, her return to East Austin
China Smith is more than a teacher for families who enroll their children in Ballet Afrique Dance Academy. She becomes a mentor and role model, a shining example of black excellence in a city where fine art programs are often sorely lacking in brown faces.
I met Smith in the fall of 2012 when I enrolled my Métis toddlers for a pair of classes called “Not 2 Young 2 Dance” and “Just For Me, It’s Fun Being 3”. My daughters immediately fell in love with Smith’s gentle warmth and exuberant energy. Nine years later, one of them is still a dedicated student.
Like most arts organizations, Ballet Afrique struggled during the pandemic. Class sizes have been considerably reduced and performances postponed. But as the company begins a new season (with beefed up security measures in place), Smith fulfills a 13-year dream of bringing her business back to its roots in East Austin.
Ballet Africa will take over a vacant yoga studio in the Snell Building on East Eleventh Street as part of a larger campaign to boost black arts in Austin’s African-American Cultural Quarter, part of downtown Austin. Austin which was once the heart of culture and commerce for black Austinites. .
From the archives: Ballet Afrique brings a new artistic vision to Austin
I asked Smith, who is from Austin, what the move means to her. This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Smith grew up in northeast Austin on “the 23rd,” but her father thought she would get a better education west of the freeway, so she joined a number of children from East. Central Austin who transferred to Austin High School. Their neighborhood has become his second home.
The east side was like my playground. … It was really the community that I depended on. For example, in East Eleventh, where Hillside Farmacy is located, it used to be a restaurant called Gene’s. It was based in New Orleans. Now, I was riding my bike over there, and he would feed me for breakfast, because he knowed I had no money. I’m just a kid who rides a bike. (It was) just people taking care of each other. Like, you don’t have to ask.
What I loved about East Austin and our community, what I loved the most, was you seeing people sitting on their porch and waving your hand at them. … You walk past someone’s house and wave at them. It was just an unspoken community that exists there.
Of course there were the other parts, like not being able to order pizza because no one would come. Or I specifically remember attending school events, and when it was time to go home, not being able to take me home because no one would want to go to that part of Austin.
I taught in this (field) even before starting Ballet Afrique. This is probably what led me to create Ballet Afrique, because the need was so incredible. It was do or die. It (felt) crucial. … Not because these children were not able, but (they needed) a drastic intervention in the way they saw themselves.
One of the first ensembles Smith worked with was a girl group from Kealing Middle School.
I felt like they had no idea how beautiful, amazing, powerful and brilliant they were. They were just products of what society told them they were, and I could smell it instantly. … I just wanted them to see how beautiful African culture was and relate it to who they were. … (There was an) inherent grace in them that they weren’t aware of. Like, this is your story. The way you move, the way you speak, that curl in your hair, it’s quite a story. And you own it. This is yours. I felt when I was working with children there that they had no connection (with) the heritage that was in their skin.
One of my first shows was at Kealing. I don’t think they’ve ever seen something like this before. … I just didn’t live in this box of what the curriculum in a school should look like. So my first show there was Africa, Africa, Africa. It was over there. It was so amazing. We wrapped our hair; I remember it like it was yesterday. I think it empowered (the students) so much.
Throughout the history of Ballet Afrique, a significant percentage of students have benefited from academic assistance. Smith says working with underprivileged children is his mission and his goal.
I just always want to make sure our community knows that’s why (the company) is there. This is why it is in place. I think very strongly that there are still pockets and neighborhoods (of the city) where children are very underserved, especially in the arts.
But the demographics of the neighborhood have changed dramatically and she hopes Ballet Afrique will attract a diverse group of students.
I just want to do my best to make sure it’s a place where everyone feels like it’s theirs. Because like it or not, you live there, and you’re my neighbor down the street. We are a community now. We have to understand this shit.
She sees Austin at a crossroads, with potential for greatness.
Austin really has the opportunity, especially in this climate, to be a mega center for arts and culture … and not just because of (South by Southwest) or (Austin City Limits Festival) … there is has so much cultural art here. (There are) so many artists of color here that should be supported, because we bring people to Austin. We are the flavor of Austin. We are the seasoning. Take that off, then you’re just another town in Texas.
From the archives: How China Smith is changing the face of dance in Austin
To celebrate his company’s return to East Eleventh Street, Smith hosted a fundraiser at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard. For the first time, she began to listen to the work of the East Austin jazz musician.
This is going to be one of the projects I’m working on, a dance concert, showcasing his music and making people aware of who these artists are.
A few years ago, when Smith did a piece based on the Harlem Renaissance, she brought in white choreographers to teach her the black dances of the time.
I must have learned it from someone else. It was not transmitted. This is something I had to do because (otherwise) it kind of just goes away. This is what I don’t want to happen.
This beautiful okra grow pot that Austin has right now, it has to be grown and cared for, or it will be gone.