Therrell Smith’s dream was always to dance and to inspire others to do the same.
She began dancing ballet in the District 88 years ago. While attending Dunbar High School, she choreographed many of the school plays and operettas. She volunteered as a dance instructor for a local charity to make extra money as a teen.
During her years at Fisk University, she spent summers working as a dance teacher at a summer camp in Wisconsin. After graduation, she continued to work with young people as a camp counselor and drama teacher at a camp in Massachusetts. The highlight of her own training came when she was selected to study in Paris under the famous Mathilde Kschessinska, prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
For 65 years, she has taught dance, first at the LeDroit Park Nursery School, then later at facilities on Rhode Island Avenue, NW and Bunker Hill Road, NE, where she continues to work with young people.
At four years shy of a century, dance is still her life. And when members of her congregation decided to help her celebrate her birthday on Nov. 10, she knew exactly what to give them in return: the gift of dance. A members of the Unity of Washington D.C. church gathered inside the sanctuary, resplendent in their Sunday best, Smith blessed them with a classical modern dance.
She was welcomed by Sheryl McCullough, who could barely contain her excitement.
"I'd like to introduce to you today, a woman that has accomplished so much in her career,” McCullough said. “It is an honor and privilege that she is with us here today. She wants to dance for us here on her 96th birthday…Ms. Smith, please stand up.”
As Smith rose, the crowd immediately rose as well, giving her a standing ovation before she even moved into position. There were tears in her eyes as she approached the front of the church. As she danced, the members cheered her on, marveling that she was still as light on her feet as a feather, as confident of her moves as an eagle in flight.
When the music stopped, Smith blew kisses to the crowd. As she took one last bow, there was scarcely a dry eye in the room.
On this Sunday, Therell C. Smith had turned 96 years young, and she had celebrated by sharing her art with people she loved, as she had since she was 8 years old.