Among the many traditions at Therrell Smith's school of dance, the annual Christmas parties for her students are particularly endearing.
On Christmas Eve and again on the day after Christmas for the past 30 years, a group of young students has been invited to her magnificent home on Logan Circle to sing, dance and dine. During those years, the children's dance and dress styles have changed dramatically. But the way they are expected to sit at Smith's dinner table has remained the same.
"Yes, ma'am," "Thank you, ma'am" and "Pass the biscuits, please," are standard etiquette. Posture is correct, with backs pressed firmly against chairs. Elbows, needless to say, are not allowed on the table.
"Some things just don't need changing," said Smith, a native Washingtonian who began dancing at the age of 8 in the late 1920s. "I've had the privilege of teaching hundreds of children, and I can say unequivocably that children today want to learn correct behavior as much as ever. They are not always able to appreciate the discipline as children, but when they grow up they invariably return to say, 'Thanks, I needed that.' "
Among those who regularly return to express their gratitude is Virginia Johnson, the prima ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem, who was taught by Smith from the age of 3 until she was 12.
Another student, Silvia Jones-Turner, went on to become head of a university dance department.
But developing superb dance talent is not enough for Smith.
"I am old-fashioned in that my interest is in the total person," Smith said. "Dance becomes a way to get a person aware of their physical self. It's great exercise and a fun way to get the body in shape. That usually results in mental alertness, which in turn can lift the spirit."
For her younger students, such concepts are not always easy to explain. So Smith must show them.
"I had one student to look at me and say, 'How can you be the dance teacher? You're too old.' I said, 'Oh, really. Put your leg upon the bar and touch your knee with your head, as I am doing.' She couldn't do it, and after that she shut up and started paying attention."
The daughter of a prominent physician, T.C. Smith, and a "highly cultured" mother, Birdie, who was a homemaker, Smith spent five years studying dance with Ballet Arts at Carnegie Hall in New York. She studied for several more years in Paris under the tutelage of a Russian prima ballerina.
Soon after returning to Washington in 1948, Smith turned her extraordinary talents to teaching dance to children at the Le Droit Park Nursery, a day-care center run by her sister.
"Dance lessons for little girls was almost a requisite for the middle class during that period," Smith said. "These were the days of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, of refinement, grace and style. There was no doubt in the minds of black people that they were as good as, if not better, than anybody else."
Smith eventually opened a dance studio on Bunker Hill Road in Northeast Washington. To make her expertise available to more than just the children of the black middle class, she began volunteering as a dance teacher with the D.C. public schools.
With support from the Thomas and Birdie C. Smith Arts Foundation, which she started in 1975, Smith teaches dance at J.O. Wilson, Emery and Gage-Eckington elementary schools.
To be sure, time has tempered some of Smith's techniques. She is not so exacting as she was in the heyday of the 1950s and early '60s, when she could easily persuade 12 shy boys to don tights and play princes in her production of "Secret of the Worn Out Shoes."
"Children today require more understanding and more patience," Smith said. "Their lifestyles are so different, with many of them living with one parent and being rushed from school to babysitter to home."
During a recent dance lesson, Smith recalled, one particularly troublesome public school student refused to cooperate. Instead of chastising her, Smith simply hugged the child -- who promptly melted in her arms.
"We must never forget to love our babies," Smith said.
After dinner, Smith usually plays music from the classic "Nutcracker Suite," while the students perform. For her, the dance of the Sugarplum Fairy is more than a vision. It is her creation, with generations of dancers, made with a tradition of discipline and love.