This is how she celebrated her birthday. Her 95th birthday.
I needed to know this woman, to learn her secret to such radiance as a nonagenarian. So I visited her at her gorgeous Logan Circle home to find out.
When I arrived, she was outside with a wet paper towel, cleaning the granite front step of the home that has been in her family since the 1930s.
“The dust, from all those cars and trucks driving by,” she said, pointing to a delivery truck belching around the circle.
She remembers when it was called Iowa Circle and when it was full of formal gardens and children dressed up in finery for a day in the park. And she remembers when people didn’t want to live next door to her family.
Smith is one of Washington’s most famous dance teachers — and certainly among the city’s longest-lived — instructing students at her school since 1948.
She opened her own school because, after studying in New York and Paris, she returned to a country where segregation would keep her from getting hired at any of the major dance companies.
So she started her own studio and got hundreds of Washington children dancing.
And not only is she still dancing, she is still teaching students, volunteering at D.C. public schools and taking private students at her studio on Bunker Hill Road in Northeast Washington.
But she is disappointed that fewer schools are honoring the arts and that there are fewer places for a philosophy like her own.
There are ballet schools, sure. But there is a rigor and routine to the approach. She herself was put in toe shoes far too early, at age 8, she said. And even when they do ballet, it’s one activity on a checklist — ballet, math tutor, soccer, test prep.
For Smith, ballet for children is about creativity and movement, about joy.
“That’s what keeps me going. The children,” she said. And passion and love for dance.
It’s what got her in trouble, businesswise, at times. She rarely kept track of who was paying.
One adult even told her, years after being in lessons and recitals: “And to think, I never paid you.”
But it was more than a business. It was the celebration of beauty, of art, of culture and elegance.
She is a crusader of proper table etiquette: “Those elbows! Elbows do not belong on the table,” she told me, trying hard to demonstrate the offending position on her own lovely, formal table but unable to hold it for more than two seconds, so deeply offensive it is to her.
And she is a stickler for clean doorsteps and a house properly decorated for the season — we sat amid antiques, exquisite linens and a collection of scarecrow dolls.
But Smith is not rigid in the formula for getting through to kids.
“I just took her in my arms and hugged her. And she just melted,” Smith said, describing a tough student whom she is instructing, gratis. And that was how she always got to them: with love.