At 93, D.C. Ballet Teacher Is Still Dancing

fromWAMU

We meet a 93-year-old dancer in Washington, D.C., who is still teaching children the art of ballet.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

And now, a story that proves you can do what you love and make a difference in someone's life no matter how old you are.

From member station WAMU, Rebecca Sheir reports.

(Soundbite of music)

REBECCA SHEIR: It's Saturday afternoon in Northeast, Washington, D.C., and behind a wrought iron bar door on Bunker Hill Road, two young girls decked out in tights and leotards are taking ballet. Their teacher...

Ms. THERRELL CAMILLE SMITH (Owner, Therrell Smith School of Dance): Rond de jambe.

SHEIR: ...is a tiny woman - 5 feet tall, tops - wearing bright red lipstick and well-worn toe shoes. As music flows from the vintage record player in the corner, she gives directions...

Ms. SMITH: Back to fifth.

SHEIR: ...critiques.

Ms. SMITH: You never leave your arms. You see, the arms stay here.

SHEIR: She even gives demonstrations, joining her students at the bar as they execute their plies, rond de jambes and releves.

Ms. SMITH: This is the preparation. One, two, rond de jambe. Then lift yourself. Lift.

SHEIR: But this is not your typical ballet class because this pint-sized professeur de danse...

Ms. SMITH: The knee has to be turned out.

SHEIR: ...is 93 years old. Her name is Therrell Camille Smith.

Ms. SMITH: And I was born in Washington, D.C. I am the second daughter of five daughters.

SHEIR: And she started dancing at age 8 when her parents signed her up for lessons.

Ms. SMITH: And when I went to college, I didn't major in dance. I majored in sociology. But in the meantime, my father had given my sister a building for a nursery school.

SHEIR: Where Smith was helping out as a teacher.

Ms. SMITH: And one of the parents said, would you please, Therrell, give my daughter dance lessons? And I said, sure.

SHEIR: In 1948, Smith opened her own school, the Therrell C. Smith School of Dance.

Ms. SMITH: You know, on the first recital, there were eight children. And then I realized if I was going to grow that fast, I needed to really study some more.

SHEIR: So during summer breaks, she took classes in New York City and Paris. And when she returned to America, she knew segregation would prevent her from getting hired at any of the premier dance companies.

Ms. SMITH: I think by the time things opened up and whatnot, maybe I was too old. You know, you get 40 or something, you know, you're a little old for pointing, all that.

SHEIR: But she continued teaching and watching her school grow...

Ms. SMITH: My enrolment got to be over a hundred.

SHEIR: ...and grow.

Ms. SMITH: And then 200, you see?

SHEIR: So, by now, she says she must have exposed thousands of students to dance and the arts.

Ms. SMITH: When you disregard the importance of the arts, you're going to lose out with your children because it creates and stimulates your imagination, and you just have greater dreams, I think.

SHEIR: Since the 1970s, Smith also has been teaching ballet at a number of D.C. public schools, including Emery Elementary.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) stop that (unintelligible).

SHEIR: Where after a recent lesson, the entire class rushes forward to give her a hug.

Ms. SMITH: Only one at a time.

No, no. Move back. Go back in line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEIR: Therrell Smith says it's harder to attract children to dance class these days, but she's determined to hang on to those toe shoes, keep those records playing and stay on point.

Ms. SMITH: If you love me that much, you'd listen.

SHEIR: For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Sheir in Washington.

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