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Meet Birmingham’s Ursula Smith: Teacher, dancer, choreographer

Ursula Smith (Stanley Parrish Photo)

By Javacia Harris Bowser

For The Birmingham Times

If the phrase “Representation Matters” were a person, it would be Ursula Smith. Making sure Black girls and boys feel represented in the arts drives nearly all that Smith does as a teacher, dancer, and choreographer.

For about 20 years, Smith has offered dance instruction and performance opportunities for Birmingham-area children through the Ursula Smith Company, where fall classes will begin on September 6. And since 2018, she has choreographed and produced Birmingham’s “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker,” which presents a unique twist on Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” by fusing elements of African American culture with the holiday classic.

“I wanted to build platforms for Black boys and girls to see reflections of themselves and to see themselves on a big stage with a big audience coming to see and support them,” Smith said.

The last round of auditions for this year’s “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker” took place on August 29. Each year the production sells out—sometimes three months before the first show—and draws dancers and audiences beyond Birmingham, including performers from Talladega, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, and various locales in Florida, just to name a few.

 More Than a Hobby

 Smith’s story doesn’t read like the typical dance resume. She didn’t start taking ballet at age 3 or go to a conservatory. Smith, who grew up in the North Birmingham and East Lake neighborhoods, discovered her love for dance as a child by participating in plays at school and through church.

“More Than Conquerors Faith Church—that’s where I cut my teeth as a dancer,” she said.

At the time, Smith didn’t know studying dance at a studio was even possible. But by age 15, she did know that dance was more than a hobby.

“It was a way to express myself, but other people were inspired through that expression,” Smith said. “After I saw the influence I had and how captivated the audience would be when I would perform, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

After high school Smith, traveled across the U.S., to places like New York, Georgia, and Missouri, to attend dance conferences and workshops. And she was eager to share everything she’d learned with the Birmingham community.

Smith transformed her home into a studio and began offering classes. In 2004, she opened a space in Fairfield, hired three instructors, and was soon teaching an average of 50 students. Then the Great Recession hit and, like many arts program across the country, the Ursula Smith Company suffered. Smith’s student roster dwindled, and in 2008 she had to close the doors of her studio.

But that didn’t stop Smith. She began teaching dance classes through local community centers, churches, and the Birmingham Public Library.

“I went mobile and just grew my base from there,” she said.

With the support of that base, in 2020 Smith opened a new location in the Historic Civil Rights District in the A.G. Gaston Building. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to stifle this new venture, but Smith prevailed by offering virtual classes.

That business acumen has attracted national attention. In August, Mastercard selected Smith and three other Birmingham businesses to be part of its national Priceless campaign.

Smith said she went digital one month after opening her dance studio on Feb. 1, 2020, because of the pandemic.

“My business thrives on personal contact, but when the pandemic hit, I had to make a pivot and offer virtual classes,” Smith said. “From March 2020 to April 2021, we had 127 virtual dance classes and rehearsals for children and adults. Digital definitely helped stabilize my business because I was able to make contact with my students and people in the community.”

Smith’s company also hosted free virtual dance workshops for children and adults in a broad range of styles, including ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and West African; she even offered dance aerobics.

“We wanted to do our part to keep people going because [the pandemic made things] pretty tough,” Smith said. “No one was prepared for it.”

Nonetheless, Smith adapted quickly, and her virtual classes allowed her to reach students in cities like Chicago, Illinois, states like California, and countries as far as away Japan and Australia.

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“If They Can’t See It, They Can’t Be It”

Today, the Ursula Smith Company is still going strong as it prepares for this year’s “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker.” The story starts on Christmas Eve during a family ugly Christmas sweater party. That’s when Marissa Brown receives the Brown Sugar Nutcracker, a family heirloom that’s been passed down for generations, and her adventure begins. The audience travels with Marissa through various scenes and styles of dance, including ballet, contemporary, liturgical, and West African—all of which come together to celebrate Black culture.

“The Brown Sugar Nutcracker” is both hilarious and heartwarming, said Smith, adding that audiences often find themselves laughing and crying, feeling empowered and inspired during the show. An audience member approached Smith after a performance and said, “Ursula, it’s vital that you continue to tell this story in a way that enables people to leave with their heads up and their chests out, proud to be who they are as a people.”

And that’s exactly what Smith plans to continue to do.

Eryn Cade has seen the impact of “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker” firsthand. She’s been a part of the production since the beginning, starring as the Brown Sugar Queen, and is now a ballet instructor with the company.

Cade, who considers Smith one of her dance mentors, credits Smith with cultivating her own beliefs on the importance of representation in dance.

“[Smith] says this phrase like clockwork: ‘If they can’t see it, they can’t be it!’ And I couldn’t agree more,” Cade said. “As a ballet teacher and in my role as the Brown Sugar Queen, I have worked with so many students who have a desire to dance but are scared to or their dreams of being a ballerina or any type of dancer were killed because they were Black.”

“The Brown Sugar Nutcracker” is one of the many ways Smith is striving to keep these dreams alive: “Every year, the show has given so many students, in state and out of state, hope,” Cade said.

Beyond an Eight-Count

Throughout the week, Smith rises long before the sun, waking up and starting her day at 3 a.m.

“Every day I get up and attack the day aggressively to make sure what I did at the end of the day took me closer to my ultimate goal,” she said—and that goal isn’t just her mission of inspiring others through dance and the arts.

Smith is also the inspiration behind the near-two-minute video of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on election night dancing alongside an elegant partner in red sequins with the city lights behind them before the lighted gateway to Rotary Trail.

Credit for the concept, the mayor said, goes to Smith who broached Woodfin about taking dance lessons at her following announcement of the MasterCard alliance.

“He was like, ‘Are you serious?’,” Smith said with a laugh, according to AL.com. “I said I was, and he entrusted me to create something for him.”

Being a good wife and mother are top priorities for Smith, as well.

“My house is full of artists,” she said, adding that her husband, David Smith, is a drummer who’s played for notable acts, such as Birmingham’s own Ruben Studdard and Just a Few Cats.

“It’s a beautiful thing that my husband and I both have an understanding of what we do, so we support each other in our endeavors,” she said.

The couple has two children—5-year-old Elijah and 2-year-old Sophia—and another baby girl on the way.

“They came out dancing,” Smith said jokingly of her children, adding that she continued to teach, perform, and even travel during all of her pregnancies. “They are little entertainers around the house, so there’s never a dull moment.”

The thing that has kept Smith going all these years is the impact she’s had on young lives.

“It’s beyond an eight-count,” Smith said. (Eight-counts are also used to support a variety of exercises in class, including warm-ups, center, across the floor, and final dance combinations.)

Dance gives students the confidence to explore the arts and do anything else they dream of doing.

“Even if they didn’t pursue dance later on in life,” Smith said, “seeing how dance was used as a vehicle to catapult them into their ultimate purpose, that, to me, is special.”

To learn more about the Ursula Smith Company and “The Brown Sugar Nutcracker,” visit ursulasmithdance.com.