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Updated: Thursday, 24 Jan 2013, 6:31 PM CST
Published : Thursday, 24 Jan 2013, 5:43 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - These are heady days at Ballet Afrique , Austin’s only primarily African-American dance company.
Fresh off a feature in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine , naming Ballet Afrique founder China Smith a Local Hero , the company is now in the midst of a $25,000 crowd source fundraising drive on Indiegogo.com website.
The money will help the young dance group finally nail down a permanent home after a series of moves since it was founded in 2008.
“It's really hard to build something when you're forced to keep moving,” Smith said during an afternoon-long series of classes and rehearsals at the Ballet Afrique studios in Highland Mall .
The mall, once a thriving destination, is expected to become home to an Austin Community College campus and the dance company’s future there is in doubt.
What is not in doubt is that Ballet Afrique has a future.
“We're at this point,” said Smith, “where we're not just this cute little dance company anymore. We're definitely a force to be reckoned with in the dance world.”
Whatever the future has in store, though, it was China Smith’s past that created Ballet Afrique, a company with a professional performing troupe and a school that teaches a wide variety of dance disciplines to over 100 students of all ages.
Growing up on Austin’s east side, Smith found it difficult to participate in things like dance.
“Especially in my neighborhood,” she said, “I didn't really have a lot of access to the arts. But what I did have was access to my dad's enormous record collection. He had lots of jazz and, you know, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and lots of beautiful music. And when he was gone, I would get into his record collection and play music.”
That helped the child deal with her surroundings, but she still saw her friends suffer.
“The school that I went to was pretty tough,” Smith said. “I had a lot of friends that had some very dire circumstances with poverty and abuse. And I saw them take avenues that weren't that great, such as stealing.
“But then, you know, when you don't have food to eat and your mom isn't home and sometimes you don't know another way to do things.”
But the child’s biggest eye-opening experience came not in her own neighborhood, but across town.
“I was involved in a program called PALS,” said Smith, “where we got to visit different schools all around Austin. And at one point, we got to visit a school in West Lake and it really blew my mind: the cafeteria and the library.
“I was just amazed at the wealth and the difference that I felt from my school and the schools that I saw. And so early on, I think I started having this implant in my mind that the way your surroundings kind of dictate how you feel about yourself.”
So when Smith was just 13 she got an idea.
“I thought,” she recalled, “that if I could just expose my friends, to beautiful jazz music, I thought that it could open up their minds and change the way they saw things, because I saw a lot of ignorance and it made me really sad.
“I thought that if I exposed my friends to, 'Hey, there's a huge world out there beyond what's right here in front of you,' I think it lends itself to wanting to explore and make it past the temporary circumstances that you're involved in at that time.”
After high school and college, Smith traveled throughout the Caribbean, picking up dance moves and soaking in the culture.
Back in Austin in 2008, she took the plunge, founding her dance company and school and running them virtually by herself for years.
“Believe it or not,” said Smith, “some people might be very intimidated to take a ballet class. It might be that they don't speak English. It might be that they've never seen anybody that looks like them dance ballet.”
Many such people come from the minority community and Smith wanted a home for them and for anyone who aspires to dance but might have trouble paying tuitions at established companies and schools.
So at Ballet Afrique, costs are kept deliberately low and many students study on scholarship. Smith’s family and friends help support the enterprise and operating funds also come from ticket sales at performances by the company’s adult troupe.
There is just not enough left over, though, to pay for a permanent home. So Smith is hoping that the exposure through Oprah will help jumpstart the Indiegogo drive.
“Ballet is the same no matter where you go,” she said. “The steps are the same; it's all the same, but sometimes where you practice in can have a huge effect on how you feel about it.
“So my dream is to build a center in East Austin that makes dance accessible, because even the nature of ballet, the history of ballet makes it very exclusive. And so what I would like to do is bring dance to a place where it's inclusive and where everybody feels like they have the right to step into a studio.”
And Smith is determined to get the word out that Ballet Afrique is not a place for recreational dance.
“This is a place where we take each and every child that comes in here very seriously,”
she said. “We use dance as an avenue to sort of compare it to reaching after your dreams and your goals.
“I believe that everybody has an ability to connect to someone, to help someone, and my way is through dance. But it’s not just about dance; it's about the exposure of how big the world is. It can change your life.”
Already Smith is watching those changes take place.
“I have several kids, she said, “that are in high school now that are so incredibly talented. They have been able to go off to audition to the Juliard School and audition for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater .
“And I can't help but think that because we're starting so young now, even at age two, that by the time that those little kids, should they stick with it, make it to the high school level, that what an incredible thing that we would have built here in Austin.”
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