Ballet teacher Therrell C. Smith may be 100, but she’s still got it. She celebrated her 100th birthday with family, friends and former students earlier this month by performing the “Fascination Waltz” with ballroom dancer Stan Kelly. She finished off the afternoon tribute at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts at the center of a kick line surrounded by her nephews and great nephews as the recording crooned “Hello, Auntie,” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly.”
She, of course, stole the show, which featured many tributes and proclamations from the mayor of DC, her alma mater Fisk University and others.
Smith opened her ballet school in 1948 with three students. Their supportive parents wanted their daughters to have the advantage of an artistic education even though the city was deeply segregated. As a ballet teacher she was an innovator, instructing predominately African American children in a then-segregated city in an art form that was almost entirely off limits to them. Even theaters like Constitution Hall, where later The Washington Ballet performed, enforced segregation.
Therrell C. Smith. Photo by Matt Andrea, Courtesy.
Prior to that, Smith began her own ballet studies at age 8 with Mabel Jones Freeman. As a teen she choreographed and danced in school shows and at summer camps. After graduating from Fisk University with a degree in sociology, Smith spent some summers at the Ballet Arts School at Carnegie Hall in New York and later studied with Russian prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska in Paris.
Still trim and agile, Smith would be teaching weekly today if her northeast Washington, DC studio floors weren’t damaged by a flood in January 2016. For nearly 70 years she taught at her own studio, and also, beginning in the 1970s, in select DC public elementary schools, providing access to an art form that most children would not have had otherwise. But beyond ballet, Smith imparted deportment, manners and grace with the understanding that while the majority of her students would not become ballerinas, the discipline would serve them well as lawyers, doctors, teachers and parents.
Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artistic director, studied at the Therrell C. Smith School of Dance from age 3 until 12, when she applied for a scholarship at The Washington School of Ballet. “I remember Therrell as strict but loving,” Johnson said. She noted that “this is how it happens in dance,” as one teacher passes on her technique and love of the form to the next generation.
Therrell C. Smith performing with Stan Kelly during her 100th birthday celebration. Photo by Matt Andrea, Courtesy Andrea.
Asked about changes she has seen in ballet, Smith replied, “I haven’t changed that much. The whole world has changed: the tone. People are expressing themselves more now. So many rules of etiquette have disappeared. They do whatever they want now. Just the dress, the hair,” she shakes her head. “I don’t know what to say.”
In the studio Smith introduced yoga exercises preceding the traditional ballet barre warm-up. “That’s how I would start he class. I always started with floorwork. We’d get a mat or a rug and do yoga to warm up…to just calm them down. Especially in the 1970s, when I started teaching inner city children, I started with the yoga. They loved doing handstands and bends.” Smith still does those yoga exercises daily and can get her leg up on a barre with ease.
Photo by Matt Andrea, Courtesy Andrea.
Asked what advice she would offer to today’s dance students, Smith balks. “Oh, I don’t know what to say. Now there is the hip hop and jazz,” she says, noting that she only ever taught ballet. She adds, “I was trying to develop the whole child. For example, we had a Palm Sunday tea for over 50 years. I wanted the children to enjoy and have fun, too.”
Her secret? “I lasted so long because of the youth and my love of children. Some of my students are grandmothers now, but they will always be my children.”