Katie Smythe


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Group of students in dance class.

Charles "Lil Buck" Riley (in red shirt) in class at New Ballet Ensemble in 2007. Photo by Nan Hackman

As a child of privilege, I was raised with access to excellence in the arts from a very young age. My grandmother, Mary Clay Tate Smythe, was born in 1900 and was my first ballet teacher. At the start of the Great Depression, after leaving Chicago Lyric Opera, she moved home to Memphis to start a free ballet program for youth in Memphis, whose families had been devastated economically. Later, she founded the Episcopal Girls Home, a refuge from life on the streets, where she taught girls to dance, then sent them to parties to meet mainstream society . . . a kind of My Fair Lady scenario!

Personally, growing up in the arts, there was never a separation of high art and equitable arts dissemination. I eventually wound up in elite places such as the Royal Academy of Dance in London and the Banff Centre, but my earliest memories are of stories of a community arts education model where all children have access to excellence in teaching.

Upon retiring as a professional dancer I started a nonprofit, New Ballet Ensemble, with an intention to carry on “Mommee’s” mission. Intentionally, half of our students come from poverty and half come from privilege. Ballet and multicultural dance training are the vehicles that create one of the only opportunities for siloed Memphis children to grow up together from kindergarten to college.

Winning the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities was a milestone for New Ballet Ensemble, but it was also a shout out to my departed grandmother who never took a cent to teach a child if they didn’t have it to spare, who fed and nurtured her students even if they quit dancing, and who, because of her innate ability to read body language, could communicate, for example, with a special needs child who had become alienated in the middle of an adult party. She was the most empathetic and compassionate human being one could ever meet.

The arts teaches us to read one another, it instills compassion and an ability to act on instinct, to follow our gut and take a risk to create something completely new…even, and especially, change in the world.

Now, many decades later, our progeny here at New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis, Lil Buck, is dancing his way across the globe. Would I have noticed his potential, had compassion for him, or listened to him when he needed it, if it were not for Mommee? He and I are from two different cities, the poor and remote Memphis where a child might never be noticed by a caring adult and the old southern white Memphis where telling the truth about our history of oppression and the oppressed can have consequences, but we found our commonality in dance. What a privilege to be raised by an artist to continue a legacy of community arts education. What glorious stuff for we, the artists, to be made who we are and to realize our power to create change through the arts.