How China Smith’s Ballet Afrique has been impacting Austin for ten years
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Claire Schaper
China Smith grew up in a Northeast Austin home filled with music thanks to her dad’s record collection. “When you listen to music — especially African rhythms and jazz — it gives you a picture or a scope of something more beautiful than what you see every day,” recalls the dancer and choreographer.
Smith, who is the founder of Ballet Afrique, a contemporary-dance company and academy, has felt drawn to music for as long as she can remember. Those same records that defined her childhood later became the soundtrack for performances she put on as a teenager. But despite this rich cultural appreciation within her own world, Smith experienced a sharp disconnect from the arts during her time as a student at both Pearce Middle School and Austin High School. “I had no idea about ballet growing up, and the music I heard at home and what I saw reflected in dance [in Austin] did not match. Drill team wasn’t appealing to me, and I knew there was much more to movement, but I didn’t know how to seek it out,” explains Smith.
Salsa turned out to be transformative and one of her first real encounters with a more structured dance world. Smith recalls finally being old enough to go to places on her own, which allowed her to check out Austin’s live-music scene: “I went to this club called Miguel’s La Bodega — an old salsa club — and I had no idea how to do this [salsa] but wanted to. This guy asked me to dance, and I was so terrible he twirled me right off the floor within 30 seconds. That experience made me say, ‘I’ll be back and I’m going to learn and everyone will want to dance with me.’”
Somewhat unbelievably, that man is now the parent of one of Smith’s students and presumably has no idea what a gift he gave her. That moment lit a fire within Smith: She began to study Afro-Caribbean rhythm, modern and West African dance, and ballet and became a self-described “dance pirate” who sought classes everywhere she could. In addition to having a passion for movement, she also knew first-hand the importance of providing girls like herself a chance to see themselves in their surrounding cultural depictions. “There has to be opportunity and investment in a skill … you can’t just be told. I want Austin to see all types of cultures performing dance. I feel like music can cover over the false and racist depictions that my peers and I have experienced.”
After professionally performing with Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance, teaching in AISD elementary and middle school classes, and working with local mentors like Boyd Vance, Smith was inspired to make dance accessible to students in the communities she had grown up in, and in 2008 Ballet Afrique was born. Smith is committed to providing her students a choice so they can take something they have a passion for and thrive off of that passion.
Ballet Afrique, which is located on Cameron Road, is now a booming modern-dance company and academy that serves 120 families, ranging in age from young children (classes start as early as age two) to adolescents to and adults. The organization’s stated mission is to “use dance to build understanding, inspiration and appreciation for the cultures and experiences of the African diaspora,” and Smith explains that the name has much more to do with “the word ‘ballet’ originating from a core group of people and less to do with actual ballet.” Although the organization does put on its annual “Nutcracker” performance, which is Austin’s first African-American en pointe ballet ensemble, Smith is primarily drawn to folkloric dance, which she depicts as “inclusive and tribal.”
Smith describes her choreography style as a combination of modern Afrique rhythms and is blown away by her students, many of whom have moved into university-level dance and arts programs. The teacher, choreographer and all-around powerhouse is committed to providing her pupils with power and ownership over their own thoughts and capabilities and hopes to in turn create a community that is “celebrating the beautiful art of black culture.”
To support Ballet Afrique’s mission, click here.