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Ballet Afrique finds a new home in East Austin amid a push to nurture Black arts

China Smith is more than a teacher to the families who enroll their children in the Ballet Afrique Dance Academy. She becomes a mentor and role model, a shining example of Black excellence in a city where fine arts programs are often starkly devoid of brown faces. 

I met Smith in the fall of 2012, when I signed my mixed-race toddlers up for a pair of classes called “Not 2 Young 2 Dance” and “Just For Me, It’s Fun Being 3.” My daughters instantly fell in love with Smith’s easy warmth and exuberant energy. Nine years later, one of them still is a dedicated student.   

Like most arts organizations, Ballet Afrique has struggled during the pandemic. Class sizes have been dramatically reduced and performances postponed. But as the company begins a new season (with enhanced safety measures in place), Smith is achieving a 13-year-old dream: She is returning her company to its roots in East Austin.

More:The last stand: Inside the Black arts community's fight to restore East Austin's soul

China Smith, owner of Ballet Afrique, performs during Mwangaza Fest at Kenny Dorham's Backyard on July 18. The event was a fundraiser for the dance company, which is moving into the Snell Building on East Eleventh Street next door.

Ballet Afrique will take over a vacated yoga studio in the Snell Building on East Eleventh Street amid a broader push to boost Black arts in Austin’s African American Cultural District, a part of Central East Austin which was once the heart of culture and commerce for Black Austinites. 

From the archives: Ballet Afrique brings a new artistic vision Austin

I asked Smith, an Austin native, what the move means to her. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Smith grew up in Northeast Austin, “the ‘23,” but her father believed she’d get a better education west of the highway, so she joined a number of kids from East Central Austin who transferred into Austin High School. Their neighborhood became her second home. 

East side was like my playground. ... It was very much community I depended on. For example, on East Eleventh, where Hillside Farmacy is, that used to be a restaurant called Gene's. It was New Orleans-based. Well, I would ride my bike past there, and he would feed me breakfast, because he knew I didn't have any money. I’m just a kid riding my 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, the thing that I loved the most, was that you used to see people sitting on their porches and you would wave. ... You drive by, walk past someone's house, and you wave. 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 there. Or I remember specifically being at school events, and when it was time to be driven home, not being able to get a ride home because nobody would want to go to that part of Austin.

I've been teaching in that (area) even before I started Ballet Afrique. That's probably what led me to creating Ballet Afrique, because the need was so incredible. It was do or die. It (felt) crucial. … Not because these kids weren't capable, but (they needed) some drastic intervention in the way they saw themselves.

Kenisha Munroe checks an attendee's ticket at the front gate during Mwangaza Fest. Ballet Afrique director China Smith says she formed her company in part to teach her students how beautiful African culture is and connect that to who they are.

More:Austin's Black cultural community looks for ‘a city of real opportunity for all'

One of first ensembles Smith worked with was a group of girls from Kealing Middle School.

I felt like they had no clue how beautiful, amazing, powerful and brilliant they were. They were just products of what society was telling them that they were, and I just could feel it instantly. ... I just wanted them to see how beautiful African culture was and connect that to who they were. … (There was an) inherent grace inside them that they were not aware of. Like, it's your story. The way you move, the way you talk, that curl in your hair, that's all a story. And you own it. It's yours. I felt when I was working with kids there, that they had no connection (to) the legacy that was in their skin. 

One of my first shows was at Kealing. I don't think that they had ever seen anything like that before. ... I just didn't live in this box of what curriculum needed to look like at a school. So my first show there was Afrique, Afrique, Afrique. It was out there. It was so amazing. We wrapped our hair; I remember it like it was yesterday. I think that just empowered (the students) so much.

Terrance Carson, the assistant artistic director of Ballet Afrique, performs for the crowd at Mwangaza Fest. Ballet Afrique director China Smith says artists of color "are the flavor of Austin. We are the seasoning. You take that out, then you're just another Texas city."

Throughout Ballet Afrique’s history, a significant percentage of students have received tuition assistance. Smith says working with underprivileged children is her mission and her purpose.

I just want to always make sure that our community knows that this is why (the company) is here. This is why it's in place. I feel very strongly (that) there are still pockets and sections (of the city) where children are very much underserved, especially in the arts. 

But demographics in the neighborhood have changed dramatically, and she hopes Ballet Afrique will draw a diverse group of students. 

I just want to do my best to make sure that it's a place where everybody feels like it's theirs. Because whether we like it or not, you live there, and you're my neighbor down the street. We're a community now. We have to figure this crap out.

She sees Austin at a crossroads, with potential for greatness. 

Austin really has an 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 so much cultural art here. (There are) so many artists of color here that should be supported, because we are bringing people to Austin. We are the flavor of Austin. We are the seasoning. You take that out, then you're just another Texas city.

From the archives: How China Smith is changing the face of dance in Austin

To celebrate her company’s move back to East Eleventh Street, Smith held a fundraiser at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard. For the first time, she began listening to the East Austin jazz musician’s work. 

That's going to be one of the projects that I work on, a concert of dance, featuring his music and making people aware of who these artists are.

A few years back, when Smith did a piece based on the Harlem Renaissance, she tapped white choreographers to teach her the Black dances of the era. 

I had to learn it from somebody else. It wasn't passed down. It's something that I had to do because (otherwise) it kind of disappears. That's what I don't want to happen.

This beautiful gumbo pot of culture that Austin has currently, it has to be cultivated and nurtured, or it's going to be gone.