Homeless and hungry, China Smith prayed for something — anything — that could end her three-day starvation. Just a moment later, a woman in red approached her and placed a $20 bill in her hand, giving Smith her first glimmer of hope.
After a brief stint at the University of Texas at Austin that was cut short for financial reasons, Smith was without a place to live. Unable to support herself with her intermittent dancing career, Smith was forced out on the streets, reaching an all-time low. When she received that $20 bill, she decided to pursue her career as a dancer. Today, after dancing for over a decade, she runs Ballet Afrique in East Austin, a contemporary dance studio that incorporates the culture of African Diaspora into classical ballet.
“I think if it hadn’t been for that moment, I wouldn’t be here,” Smith said. “I truly believe that this is a calling and I’m supposed to be doing this.”
The studio’s mission is rooted in Smith’s own experience growing up as a dyslexic, black, lower-middle class girl. Smith said several aspects of the education system left her feeling disadvantaged and that most of her friends had to take care of themselves at a very young age, due to working parents.
“When you get to fourth grade, the first thing you learn about is slavery,” Smith said. “It makes you feel different, like you come from inferiority. You have to combat that with other things.”
It was in high school that Smith found her outlet. Although immediately pushed toward athletics as a ticket to college, Smith had an ankle injury on her way to the Track and Field Junior Olympics which led her to try alternative, more creative pursuits, like dance.
Years later, Smith founded Ballet Afrique to give children in similar situations the same opportunity she discovered. Smith said she hopes the studio can increase the representation of black dancers in Austin and reflect the unique culture her students have in an art that is historically dominated by white aristocracy. The girls, for example, paint their ballet flats with makeup, because the shoes were traditionally created to blend in with the pink skin tones of white dancers.
“[The kids are] able to see something that is accessible to them that they would have never done had this organization not been here,” Smith said. “To me, it’s about choice — when you have choices, you feel empowered.”
Since 2008, Smith has trained children from ages two to 18. Several of her students have been with her since she opened the studio, and all of them have continued their education through college.
Denise Washington’s 12-year-old daughter Kyden has been with Ballet Afrique for the past year. Washington, an administrative assistant and parent liaison for the studio, said Ballet Afrique has created a supportive community and a safe space for kids that want to dance.
“Everyone feels like a family there,” Washington said. “We’re all pretty close-knit [because] we all have children that have the same dreams and goals.”
In the future, Smith said she wants to establish Austin’s first African American dance company and hopes to build her own center that also focuses on music, theater and theatrical design.
“I think it’s pretty neat for Austin to be a platform for all these different beautiful cultures,” Smith said. “I want Ballet Afrique to be a part of that.”