Colleen Smith cannot recall a time in her life when she did not love to dance, but what she can remember is when she fell in love with it.
It was the mid ’60s and 5-year-old Smith was watching “American Bandstand.” “I was copying all the moves and my mother just had to show someone,” Smith says. Taking her to their next door neighbor’s house, Smith’s mother showed off her daughter’s precocious dance skills, and the neighbor encouraged Smith’s mother to enroll her daughter in ballet.
At 6 years old Smith attended her first ballet class wearing nothing but a red, white and blue swimsuit. “I was mortified,” Smith, 53, says. “My mom – being the frugal mother of five children – thought it best not to invest in a leotard in case it [ballet] didn’t take.”
But it did take. In fact, for nearly half a century, Smith’s whole life has been about dance. And even though she says she did not have an illustrious career, her resume says otherwise.
Smith has danced professionally for the BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, for New Dance Ensemble in Cleveland, and for Tulsa Ballet Theatre in Tulsa, Okla. She has taught for the Kansas City Ballet School in Kansas City, Mo., she has served as Ballet Mistress for New Dance Ensemble in Cleveland, and she even began the dance department of Trinity Methodist Fine Arts Academy in Palm Beach Gardens.
But one of her biggest feats yet has taken place right here in our backyard of Palm Beach County. For more than 21 years, Smith has been the founder and artistic director of the ballet school, The Esther Center, and for the last 13 years she’s been the artistic director of the non-profit dance company, Ballet Palm Beach (formerly known as Florida Classical Ballet Theatre).
Smith has taken all of her dance experience: the good, the bad and the ugly, and has created an environment for her students and dancers to not only execute their love for dance, but to feel like purposeful human beings.
Opening the ballet school when she did was Smith’s way of establishing a better way to train students. “I didn’t set out to start a school that would be celebrating 21 years; I just felt like if I was going to continue to teach, I had to teach in a way that was OK with my heart.”
According to Smith, the dance world is so much better now than it was back then. And the dance community can thank Smith for being a part of that change. Smith teaches her pupils that the most important thing is knowing their lives have meaning and purpose. “Maybe this [dance school or company] is a big or small part of their lives, maybe they will be dancers, maybe not. Either way they were loved here and they were cared for; it’s not just about ballet,” she says.
For Smith it’s about teaching her dancers technique and integrity, and showing them that dance is indeed a gift – a gift she’s more than willing to share with the community.
Partnering with Palm Beach County Library System and Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, Ballet Palm Beach holds performances at local libraries, schools and non-profit organizations free of charge. It also partners with other local non-profits working with underprivileged children to expose them to dance.
Ballet Palm Beach’s next production is “Romeo and Juliet,” and it will take place on Feb. 14, 2014 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens.
“We’re trying to pour something into our dancers that’s more than dance. … And I guess that’s what we’re trying to do in a nutshell in the community as well,” Smith says.