Still En Pointe...at Age 93 (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Still En Pointe... at Age 93

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:09:35
And now, proof you can keep doing what you love and make a difference in someone else's life no matter your age. It's Saturday afternoon in Northeast D.C. and behind the wrought-iron bar door of 2019 Bunker Hill Road, two young girls decked out in tights and leotards are taking ballet.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:09:59
Their teacher is a tiny woman, five feet tops and wears black slacks, red lipstick and a pale pink sweater that matches her well-worn toe shoes. As music flows from the vintage record player in the corner, she gives directions...

MS. THERRELL SMITH

13:10:13
Wrap to fifth.

SHEIR

13:10:15
...critiques.

SMITH

13:10:17
You never leave your arm. You see your arm just stays here.

SHEIR

13:10:19
She even gives demonstrations joining her students at the barre as they execute their plies, ront de jambe and releves.

SMITH

13:10:27
This is the preparation, one, two, ront de jambe then lift yourself, lift.

SHEIR

13:10:34
But this is not your typical ballet class because this pint-sized professor de dance...

SMITH

13:10:40
Your knee has to be turned out.

SHEIR

13:10:42
...is 93 years old.

SMITH

13:10:44
This paper was put up in the '30s and, of course, if you blow it, it will come down now, but anyhow...

SHEIR

13:10:52
Her name is Therrell Smith.

SMITH

13:10:54
It's going to be hard to find any paper like this, not the pattern just any quality. Everything in this house, the doorknobs, everything in this house is original.

SHEIR

13:11:05
And the day after class we're in Northwest D.C. at the longtime home of this petite and proud founder of the Therrell C. Smith School of Dance.

SMITH

13:11:13
My father and mother gave me dance lessons when I was eight years old 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 in Joy Park and I was helping her over there. And one of the parents said, would you please, Therrell, give my daughter dance lessons? And I said, sure.

SHEIR

13:11:41
So Smith opened her own school at a space her father acquired for her on Rhode Island Avenue.

SMITH

13:11:46
You know, on the first recital, there were eight children and that was in 1948. And then, I realized if I was going to grow that fast, I needed to really study some more.

SHEIR

13:12:01
So she spent five summers at the Ballet Arts School at Carnegie Hall. She even went to Paris where she studied under the Russian ballerina assoluta, Mathilde Kschessinska.

SMITH

13:12:11
She was 85 and worked with her cane diligently and I just enjoyed it so much.

SHEIR

13:12:20
When Smith returned to America, she knew segregation would prevent her from finding work with any of the country's premiere dance companies.

SMITH

13:12:28
I think by the time things opened up and whatnot, maybe I was too old, you know. You get 40 and something and you know you're a little old for pointe and all that.

SHEIR

13:12:39
But she continued teaching and watching the Therrell C. Smith School of Dance grow.

SMITH

13:12:45
My enrollment got to be over 100 and then 200, you see.

SHEIR

13:12:51
With students flocking from all over the D.C. region...

SMITH

13:12:52
We used to meet one little girl right at the bus stop every Saturday coming from Richmond.

SHEIR

13:12:58
So it wasn't long before the school had to move to a bigger space on Bunker Hill Road. And by the late '50s and early '60s, the lavish recitals given by Smith's students and, I might add, by Smith herself...

SMITH

13:13:10
I danced on every recital and I designed the costumes.

SHEIR

13:13:17
...drew enthusiastic crowds to some of D.C.'s larger venues like the Lisner Auditorium, Cramton...

SMITH

13:13:24
And that was a beautiful stage, one of the largest in the city. It holds 1,500 people. I didn't always have 1,500, but anyhow.

SHEIR

13:13:32
But anyhow in 1974, Smith created the Thomas and Birdee C. Smith Arts Foundation named for her parents to expose children in D.C. to the arts.

SMITH

13:13:43
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

13:14:01
Thanks to the Foundation, Smith has been able to teach free and discounted dance classes at a number of D.C. public schools. So, all in all, by now she suspects she's taught thousands of children.

SMITH

13:14:12
They have grown now. They're all over the world.

SHEIR

13:14:15
But even though she says her school's enrollment is a shadow of what it used to be, she doesn't plan on hanging up her toe shoes anytime soon.

SMITH

13:14:23
So many teachers needed space and they waited for me to retire so they could get my studio. One would drive past to see if I was teaching on that Saturday. They say she'll never, ever retire.

SHEIR

13:14:37
The thing is Smith doesn't keep teaching and dancing for her own sake. She does it, she says, for the children who, by the way, seem to love her. At the end of one of her classes at Emery Elementary, the students push and shove as they rush forward to give Smith a hug.

SMITH

13:14:56
Only one at a time. Go back, go back in line. I feel like maybe I'm still around here for some reason. I'm not through with the children yet, you know. They'll knock you down hugging you and all that, even those I fuss down because they misbehave. If you love me that much, you'd listen, maybe I can help.

SHEIR

13:15:20
Or given the thousands of lives she's touched so far, maybe she already has.

SMITH

13:15:29
All right you, okay, bye, bye.

SHEIR

13:15:30
To see pictures of Therrell Smith dancing today and to see original photos of her recitals from the 1960s, check out our website, metroconnection.org
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.