From China to East Austin

Where the Culture of African Diaspora Meets Classical Ballet

Words by Xander Peters  Photos by Eric Morales

China Smith speaks with her hands as much as she does with her heart. When she gets excited, when the perfect topic hits the surface of the conversation just right, the tone of her voice rises, anticipating a point to be made, as if each word is a downbeat she’s dancing to. Which, in the least, is to say—the woman has rhythm.

But it takes more than rhythm to run this house. It takes a homegrown aspiration, the need to go above and beyond for your community. It takes a self-proclaimed dreamer, a person who truly believes what they see in their head. It takes someone like China, the founding executive director of Ballet Afrique Contemporary Dance Company, an east Austin native.

The House That China Built

Since the studio first opened its doors in 2008, the progress as an organization is evident: a 11-fold increase in student enrollment (from 10 to 112), providing the need to add more instructors and classes taught along the way. A new and improved studio, although China admits it’s time to up the ante once again as more pupils continue to enroll. And, this year, every one of the company’s graduating seniors will be entering college in the fall.

On paper, it’s a success. Though, in the circumstance of Ballet Afrique, success is only a measurement of those who have not yet been reached. In China’s mind, to be active in the arts implies more than how to grow up and become a dancer. It teaches children—young adults to-be—resourcefulness, how to make something out of nothing. It’s a way to shorten the gap to opportunity. “I think art—it lends itself to other things,” she explains.

“I’m in [east Austin] because I’m from this community, I grew up in this community, and I wanted to provide something I didn’t have access to when I was growing up.”

Capturing Culture

The concept behind Ballet Afrique began with China’s internal dialogue, her sense of questioning what’s around her, both past and present. As a black woman in Austin, what does that mean for her cultural identity? Where does African American culture begin?  Did it start with the end of slavery or the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas several centuries prior?

To study dance within the African diaspora is to acknowledge how enslaved Africans were dispersed throughout the world, creating an almost incalculable amount of interpretations of traditional West African dance (a key note in Ballet Afrique’s style). Be that the case, China chose to narrow the lens. “I wanted to look at how black dance looks here, here in America,” she adds. “Why does it look this way? What’s the history behind it? So that’s what Ballet Afrique is. It’s a way for me and my students, and anybody really. You don’t have to be African American to appreciate the beauty of the culture.”

A Community’s Desire, A Need

China grew up in the 2-3, (the 78723 zip code). Early on, she noticed the disparities between her east Austin neighborhood and what was available to other children in the more affluent areas. But she also noticed the livelihood of what was around her—the way her family danced and sang and laughed while they cooked, how happiness intertwined with culture to some extent.

There are times when a former high school classmate will see what she’s done with Ballet Afrique on social media, and as always, that person will say something to the tune of “You’ve made it.” Still though, even as the dance company continues to strive towards further improvement, and the world continues to learn just a little more about traditional West African dance through their organization, it’s not a measure of gain for China. It’s a matter of necessity for her community.

One day she hopes to have a part in building an arts center in east Austin, one with at least three different dance rooms and a working theater. Being an artist in Austin has forced her to become an activist, especially for children. She has a daughter of her own as well. “Because I have a child, because I have a little girl, that’s why I felt I had to do this… Music and dancing, it’s one thing that can take you to another place,” China smiles. “It makes you want to look beyond where you are.”


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