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Amanda Smith dances into history
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Ballerina Amanda Smith (Photo by Jeff Cravotta)

As Amanda Smith tells it, her father’s attitude was always, “Aww, my baby girl, she’s a little dancer.” Her mother, however, was skeptical. “This is just a hobby,” Smith remembers her telling everyone. “She’s not really going to do this. She’s going to be a lawyer; she’s going to be a doctor.” But once her mom saw young Amanda perform her first solo around eighth grade or so, “she was crying and said, ‘this is what you’re supposed to do.’”

Amanda Smith, 22, always knew that she loved to dance — to music, to TV shows, in grocery stores, everywhere — when she was a young girl growing up in Orange County, Calif. When she was 12, she got serious. That’s when she decided, she said, “I want to do this as a profession. … This had my heart.” She swept her computer analyst mother and accountant dad (“very analytical people”) into her dream and overcame their misgivings about the entertainment world, particularly classical ballet, the slice that still lacks many prominent role models for African American women.

Smith traveled across the country to study at the prestigious dance program at SUNY (State University of New York) Purchase College on scholarship, and after graduation moved to Charlotte to dance with North Carolina Dance Theatre 2, the second company of N.C. Dance Theatre. She knew, after a New York audition for Dance Theatre’s president and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, that it would be a good fit. “They were so positive and encouraging,” Smith told me recently at the end of a long day of rehearsal at the company’s Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance on North Tryon Street. “The whole artistic staff is just wonderful and so supportive,” she said. “They just want you to do better, which is what I love.”

“I was excited about Amanda's dancing and personality from the beginning,” said Bonnefoux, who praised her rapport with other dancers. “She really stood out at the auditions in New York so I invited her to take company class in Charlotte for further evaluation. Amanda has an amazing spark about her — she shines on stage.” Mark Diamond, program director of NCDT 2 noted Smith’s maturity. “She is so versatile and so together,” he said.

Audiences can see Smith in the main company’s production of “Nutcracker” at the Belk Theater through Dec. 23, in roles ranging from the Spanish and Chinese dances to a doll to Clara’s mother. Elementary, middle and high school students can learn about dance in the lecture demonstrations NCDT 2 presents as a major part of its mission. Smith introduces the interactions, which can get the students involved.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. “I was their age once; I can remember who I looked up to and how it meant so much to me. I need to make sure that I’m always setting a good example.” African American students are particularly taken with the black ballerina, coquettishly waving a fan in a “Don Quixote” solo. “I’m so glad I’m here to show them that you can do this, too.”

Ayisha McMillan can relate to Smith’s experiences and challenges. An African American who danced with several companies, including solos with N.C. Dance, McMillan retired from performance five years ago and is now principal of North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance. She said she is delighted to see Smith in the company, “not only because she’s an African American woman, but also because she’s talented and gorgeous.” Still, she said, there’s “quite a bit of work to do.”

“Colleagues and I are working to raise a larger generation of African American dancers to carry on this art form, to carry on this legacy,” McMillan said. “We’re figuring it out to see what we can do to find dancers of color where they are. They are dancing; I’m not sure they’re dancing ballet.”

Smith knows she owes a debt to those who came before her, and credits current American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland for opening doors for African American classical dancers. “I try not to pay attention to the fact that I’m a different color,” Smith said. “I feel like it’s all within you.”

Smith, who participated in an international dance program in Spain two summers ago, said her goal is to travel the world and dance with a company. “I would love to be a principal ballerina. I want to show the world that I am a woman of color and I am a principal dancer,” she said. Also on the list — a singing, dancing and acting turn on Broadway and, eventually, marriage and three children. She was very exact about that number.

Right now, she said, her love is performing. “I’m trying to give myself to the audience, just for those few seconds or few minutes that I’m on the stage. I want to give everything so they can see me as a dancer and as a person.”
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Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post's “She the People” blog, The Root and theGrio. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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