Black woman in white sleeveless top and white trousers and shoes sitting on a chair with her head resting on her hand. White jacket on back of chair.
Kia Smith of South Chicago Dance Theatre Credit: Courtesy the artist

At Chicago Dancers United’s Dance for Life festival last August, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage reverberated with layers of rhythm. Each row of dancers formed a different section of intertwining phrases—movements playful and powerful that recalled the musicality of jazz. The piece, South Chicago Dance Theatre’s Architect of a Dream, was the work of Kia Smith, the company’s founder and executive artistic director. 

Smith created the piece for SCDT’s annual Black History Month Performance Series. Sharing the stage with names such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet in one of the city’s largest annual community-based performances, Architect of a Dream recalled the famous speech and profound legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

In its fourth annual Black History Month Performance Series, the company is set to perform a portion of this piece at roughly half a dozen Chicago elementary schools next month. The series expands upon workshops and performances that the company brings to CPS students year-round. 

The Black History Month Performance Series will pay homage to the Great Migration and Chicago’s Black Arts Movement. Smith emphasizes the weight of these themes, and how for her they hold a personal meaning. 

“I feel like everyone knows about the Harlem Renaissance and all these names in other cities, but not everyone talks about the Black Arts Movement,” Smith says. “So the show profiles themes in the Black Arts Movement, and I relate it directly to my own history of my great-grandmother and my dad as well.”

Kia’s great-grandmother came to Chicago from Memphis during the Great Migration and ran a church on the south side. Her father was a jazz musician who established Jazz in the Alley, music events in the 1960s and ’70s that celebrated jazz traditions. “Between the two of them, you know, I have deep roots on the city’s south side, and I’m a native of Chicago, and so I just felt strongly about being a dancer and having my company have a namesake of a part of where I come from.”

SCDT partners with the Hyde Park School of Dance, where Smith herself trained, and the company rehearses at its studios on 57th and Woodlawn. “Whether it is on the south side of the city or not, we are always engaging that part of the city in that work.”

In 2019, an elementary school reached out to Smith to ask if her company could perform there for Black History Month. They brought the program to a few different schools that year. In 2021, the Black History Month Performance Series was held virtually. It included a prerecorded show and a workshop in African American social dance for around 11 participating schools. 

The company plans to bring an in-person, interactive performance to its partner schools this year. Smith will speak in between different sections of the piece, which will be followed by a Q&A, time permitting. Smith says that “depending on each school’s comfortability . . . it will look different at each school because of COVID, but we’re still very excited about moving forward with the project.”

In SCDT’s operation, the company and community interact reciprocally and inextricably. This past fall, workshops with schools included a performance exchange at Kenwood Academy High School, in which students showcased their own choreography. Company members are inspired by their visits to schools, and performing company repertoire in the schools helps the work evolve.

Heather Cagle joined SCDT in 2020 and has been involved in the Black History Month Performance Series since February 2021. She was also the main teacher when SCDT partnered with After School Matters, a nonprofit offering project-based after-school and summer opportunities to Chicago high school students. “Teaching students who have never really danced before is a whole different experience,” she reflects. “Watching them from the beginning of the program to the end, they grow so much, and it really boosts their confidence.”

“Diversity is a large part of our organization,” Smith explains, as is “utilizing that diversity to invest in our community. So we bring in artists from all over the world to our organization, but we’re rooted in the city’s south side, so I make sure that everything that we do is pouring into the community.”

The company has embedded itself in relationships of learning and engagement that span the globe. Through its Choreographic Diplomacy program, in 2018 SCDT began collaborating with Joseph Kim of Choomna Dance Company based in Seoul, South Korea. Kim and members of Choomna Dance Company performed and led a Korean traditional dance master class at the inaugural Choreographic Diplomacy residency this past November. In March, SCDT and Choomna will participate in a cultural performance exchange at ArtEZ University of the Arts in the Netherlands. SCDT will present a 30-minute piece that Kim and Smith created for the company.

SCDT will end its fifth year with an inaugural performance at the Harris Theater on May 20, 2022. The five commissioned choreographers—Stephanie Martinez, founder and artistic director of PARA.MAR Dance Theatre; Crystal Michelle Perkins, associate artistic director of Dayton Contemporary Dance; longtime Chicago dancer and choreographer Ron De Jesus; Wade Schaaf, founder and artistic director of Chicago Repertory Ballet; and Smith herself—represent a wide variety of styles, blending genres in the evening-length show. This heterogeneity reflects the spectra of race, dance background, and artistic style that Smith curates in her company and its apprenticeship-like Emerging Artist program. 

Smith, whose father died this past summer, describes her piece in the May show as being “about grief and how we embody grief and experience it.” She received Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s Lab Artists Award, with which she will prepare an evening-length work in 2023. A piece she created inspired by her father was commissioned for Congo Square Theatre in the past, “but this is a different feeling.” 

Smith insists, “I don’t want to feel like I’ve been pigeonholed into one style or one way of doing things.” 

With far-flung leaps that nurture the immediate, honor the past to strengthen the future, and bring dance from a dream to a form of power in her work with SCDT, she does not have to worry.

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