Ballet Afrique brings a new artistic vision Austin

In many ways, the audience of schoolchildren who gathered recently in the Boyd Vance Theatre at the Carver Cultural Center & Museum is exactly the one China Smith hoped for when she started Ballet Afrique a couple of years ago.

When the 32-year-old dancer, native East Austinite and mother of two set about conceiving of an African American dance company and school, she had the younger generation in mind.

"We are so under-represented in the arts (in Austin)," she says. "I have to do this for my kids."

And by "kids" Smith means not just the two little ones she has at home but also the middle-school students to whom she teaches dance at Texas Empowerment Academy, a charter school in East Austin with a mostly black student population.

Hence, Smith and the Ballet Afrique dancers are giving the students a sneak peek of "Move," the company's upcoming program that will debut March 12 and 13 at Salvage Vanguard Theater. Ballet Afrique's style combines modern dance moves with contemporary ballet and infusions of African and African-influenced dance styles such as Afro-Haitian dance. After performing short programs in various local festivals, "Move" is Ballet Afrique's first full-length show.

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"If you can see how beautiful your culture is, you can see how beautiful you are," she says.

"(Ballet Afrique's) is an artistic vision of brown and black and texture and curves, and it's powerful and amazing," says Smith. "(Our culture) is so much more than music videos and sports and booty shaking."

Though she says she can't remember a time when she didn't want to dance, her own extracurricular activities as a youngster veered toward athletics. She ran track and tried martial arts. That was all well and good, but she craved something more creative. The problem was finding it.

As a dance-hungry youngster, and then young adult, Smith made forays to cultural events around Austin. But while she fed on the essential artistic expression of what she saw, it was hard to conceive making the next artistic step for one very basic reason: "Nobody on the stage looked like me," she recalls.

Throughout her school years, well-meaning arts groups dropped in to Smith's neighborhood or schools with the sporadic outreach program, but those forays never left Smith with much to clutch. "All that (arts programming) wasn't coming from my community," she says.

After graduating high school - and after an ankle injury put an end to her track career - Smith focused on honing her dance skills. "Literally, I danced wherever and with whoever I could," she laughs. She took classes, became an avid social dancer on the Austin salsa dance scene and eventually joined Puerto Rican Folkloric Ballet, a community dance troupe. With both her parents claiming Caribbean heritage, the Puerto Rican troupe nourished her sense of cultural identity - in part, that is.

As she transitioned out of college and into her position at Texas Empowerment Academy, Smith still couldn't find what she was looking for: African American-centered dance in Austin. "It's frustrating when the only thing you can look forward to is Alvin Ailey (American Dance Theater) coming through town once a year," she says, referring to the seminal 20th-century choreographer's company.

Smith was barely recovered from the difficult birth of her second child in 2007 when she held the first audition for her company. But when not one African American dancer showed up to try out, Smith took a deep breath and wondered about her plan.

Shortly afterward, while taking her dance students to a class at the school run by Tapestry Dance Company, Smith met Leah Smiley Tubbs, a classically trained dancer from Alabama. The two had an instant spark. Smith suggested that Tubbs become Ballet Afrique's artistic director and resident choreographer. Together, through word of mouth, the two women assembled a troupe of African American dancers. Then the women got to work.

(Before the recent school performance, for example, the dancers arrived three hours early for one hour of a warm-up dance class and 90 minutes of rehearsal.)

"We want to be acknowledged as good dancers first and foremost, not just because we're out there on a stage and we're black," says Smith.

Tubbs agrees, but aims her artistic goals toward a broad end, even though she uses has used the seven principals behind Kwanzaa as thematic inspiration of the seven short dances in "Move."

"The movement speaks to our culture, but anyone should be able to connect to it," says Tubbs. "My vision for (Ballet Afrique) is to artistically transcend notions of race, gender and socio/economic class."

As an East Austin-based nonprofit arts organization focused on African American cultural programming, Ballet Afrique joins a small club. Pro-Arts Collective hosts festivals, exhibits and spearheads community-wide efforts such as getting a large swath of East Austin recognized by the state as an official African American Cultural Heritage District. The independent Diverse Works operates a gallery on East Sixth Street and programs music shows at the historic Victory Grill. And though Ballet East Dance Company started in 1978 to provide a platform for dancers and choreographers of racially under-represented community, it casts its nets wide culturally and racially.

Finances are not easy for Ballet Afrique. As a new nonprofit, the group doesn't have the multiyear track record that many grant-making agencies - including the city of Austin's cultural funding program - require. Though she secured a small studio in East Austin, a former church on Manor Road from which she runs the Ballet Afrique Dance Academy and use as a rehearsal space, Smith says it's hard to make the $1,850 month rent on the place.

Smith, however, remains undeterred, propelled by the same mission she first started out with. "I have to show Austin our beauty," she says.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Move: Mixed Repertory of Ballet Afrique'

When: 8 p.m. Friday and March 13

Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road

Cost: $12, $7 for ages 16 and younger

Information: 228-7060, www.balletafrique.org

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