MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
Wrap to fifth.
You never leave your arm. You see your arm just stays here.
She even gives demonstrations joining her students at the barre as they execute their plies, ront de jambe and releves.
This is the preparation, one, two, ront de jambe then lift yourself, lift.
But this is not your typical ballet class because this pint-sized professor de dance...
Your knee has to be turned out.
...is 93 years old.
This paper was put up in the '30s and, of course, if you blow it, it will come down now, but anyhow...
Her name is Therrell Smith.
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.
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.
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.
So Smith opened her own school at a space her father acquired for her on Rhode Island Avenue.
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.
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.
She was 85 and worked with her cane diligently and I just enjoyed it so much.
When Smith returned to America, she knew segregation would prevent her from finding work with any of the country's premiere dance companies.
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.
But she continued teaching and watching the Therrell C. Smith School of Dance grow.
My enrollment got to be over 100 and then 200, you see.
With students flocking from all over the D.C. region...
We used to meet one little girl right at the bus stop every Saturday coming from Richmond.
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...
I danced on every recital and I designed the costumes.
...drew enthusiastic crowds to some of D.C.'s larger venues like the Lisner Auditorium, Cramton...
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.
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.
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.
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.
They have grown now. They're all over the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or given the thousands of lives she's touched so far, maybe she already has.
All right you, okay, bye, bye.
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
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