As a newly minted centenarian, Therrell C. Smith is frequently asked to reveal her “secret” for living so long and — no offense intended — for looking so good.
She does have two answers that should come as no surprise: a good diet — lots of fruits and vegetables (lay off the sweets and sodas) — and moderate exercise.
Smith taught ballet in the District for 75 years and ran a dance school on Bunker Hill Road in Northeast Washington. That’s a lot more than “moderate” exercise, to be sure. At her 100th birthday celebration Saturday, many of her former students showed up to pay tribute. They, too, were fit and looked much younger than their ages would suggest — including Virginia Johnson, artistic director for the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Hazel O’Leary, secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton.
“Therrell Smith was part of a group of classical dance teachers who made it possible for black girls to believe that they could be ballerinas if they wanted to,” said Carol Foster, a member of the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
But the instruction those teachers provided went beyond dance. They wanted black girls to grow strong physically and mentally, and to develop a positive self-image along with a deep appreciation for family and community. In the ongoing fight for equal rights and justice, they would need to be fit in every way.
Smith was born Nov. 5, 1917, in a house about seven blocks from where she lives now. Two years later, the sharply segregated city experienced what became known as “Red Summer” — a bloody race riot triggered by local newspaper accounts of alleged sex crimes by a “negro fiend.” The deadly conflict featured unprecedented armed resistance by black Washington residents. The riot would intensify racial animus among whites for decades while also fueling the drive for racial justice among blacks.
Learning ballet might seem like a trivial pursuit for African Americans in such a climate. But as Smith and other black dance teachers saw it, the role of dance in black culture — whether ballet or the Wobble — has long been regarded as a powerful means of self and group expression.
She learned that from her ballet teacher Mabel Jones Freeman, who opened a school in the District in 1926. Jones Freeman also choreographed for the Washington Guild of the National Negro Opera Company and worked with members of the Vestoff-Serova Russian School of Dancing to develop a ballet about the destruction of Native Americans by European settlers.
“As the civil rights movement picked up steam in the 1950s I became more and more interested in the total development of our children,” Smith said. “Not just dance, but spiritual and intellectual growth.”
The daughter of a prominent physician, T.C. Smith, and a “highly cultured” mother, Birdie, who was a homemaker, Smith graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1936 with a degree in sociology. She 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 talent of 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.”
Through her scholarship foundation, started in 1974, Smith was eventually able to make dance lessons available to a much wider group of girls.
“She is very humble and very giving,” said Jackie T. Harris, a Fisk graduate and a member of Smith’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. “She lives a life worth emulating.”
I first met Smith in 1990, when she used to host Christmas parties for children at her home. She told this story:
“I had one student 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.”
Smith no longer puts her leg upon bars and touches her knee to her head. But she can rise smoothly out of a chair without so much as a grunt. Which is more than I can say for myself.
At the birthday celebration, held at the University of the District of Columbia Theater of the Arts, Smith waltzed on stage with Julian Sanders, her 27-year-old nephew whom she taught to dance.
“There were three things she always emphasized,” Sanders said. “Love for family, teach and seek wisdom, and live life with enthusiasm.”
I talked to Smith about how black girls were often discouraged from taking ballet lessons by instructors who claimed their bones were too big or their thighs too fat.
Today, she delights in the success of ballerinas such as Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first female African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.
“We still have a long way to go,” she added. “Black girls must still fight to overcome both racism and sexism in our society.”
At 100, she’s still eager to help with that battle.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.