Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

At 95, Therrell Smith has an enduring passion and love for dance

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post - Therrell Smith performs a ballet that she choreographed to Strauss’s “Emperor Waltz” at Unity Church in the District.

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Therrell Smith was light on her feet, all fluid plies and statuesque effaces, dressed in hues of red from lipstick to toe shoes.

The ballerina received a roar of applause from the audience at Unity Church, a standing ovation and then a bouquet of red roses.

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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.

I think I can truthfully report that she doesn’t have a magic formula for youth. No complex or regimented diet, no fastidious medicinal routine. She doesn’t even have a rigid exercise routine.

“These stairs,” she said, pointing to the stately staircase in her home. She dances often and moves always, stretching and bending her right leg while holding onto the back of a chair as we speak.

What she has is a verve and joy for life that is palpable.

She was known for the elaborate Christmas parties she threw with her sister, where the elegant home was decorated like a Christmas fairy tale, and children in their best clothes (“No jeans!”) gathered around the tree while she read “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

“Not this year,” she says, looking around her big, beautiful, empty house. She will travel to see other family members instead. “It’s getting so difficult to keep the house up.”

The home was on the Washington party circuit, the kind of place the Obamas certainly would have visited had they been in Washington in the 1960s.

“I would really love to meet the first lady. I feel like we have so much in common,” Smith said.

Michelle Obama, the queen of England — anyone would be lucky to spend an afternoon as I did, in Therrell C. Smith’s company.

She is always thinking about the next event, the next party. It will be in 2013, for sure, when she celebrates the 65th anniversary of her school. “I already better start thinking of what we’re going to do,” she said.

I had to laugh when I read a comment she made almost 15 years ago to Post columnist Courtland Milloy. “Looking back over 50 years, I’ll tell you what, this is it, this is the last anniversary,” she told him.

“Ha!” she said when I reminded her of it. “No, I’m not going to retire anytime soon,” she said. She’s not going to stop with the celebrations and recitals and parties.

Even as test-prep clinics and math tutors take up more and more of our children’s time, as arts programs weaken and kids wear jeans to Christmas parties, Smith plans to keep on going.

“There is no stopping, no retirement,” she said. “I plan to just fade away.”

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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