KVUE — The first African American ballet company in Austin will move out of its space at Highland Mall on Thursday when Austin Community College's expansion plans begin. However, the company is still searching for a new home.
Tucked inside the second floor of the mall, China Smith creates ballerinas out of the least likely little girls: girls who don't lack talent, but access.
"What ends up happening is that students from particular neighborhoods or particular income — low income families — they don't have those opportunities to participate in the arts early, so when they transition to high school, they are less likely to participate in arts programs," Smith explained.
Smith evened the playing field when she created Ballet Afrique. "I started it because I had a dream to bring the arts to my community," Smith said.
After studying dance at Austin Community College, Smith opened the academy, where she teaches 142 students. The Oprah magazine named Smith a local hero in 2012. Like all heroes, she is facing a big challenge: losing her dance studio. "I really had no idea that I would be leaving this soon."
Four years ago, Smith was searching for a larger space for her growing academy and Highland Mall was the perfect fit. It is centrally located, CapMetro has bus lines to the mall so her students can easily attend, and rental rates are reduced because Austin Community College owns the mall.
The location on the second floor has wood floors with a natural spring in them and her dance company raised money to purchase mirrors to add to the walls. It has become the ideal space.
But in November 2014, voters approved a bond for phase two renovations of the mall. That is when the "mom and pop" shops left in the mall learned they had to get out.
"It's really a complete do over," said Neil Vickers, Austin Community College's vice president of finance and budget. "We have to completely replace the roof. It was built in the early '70s, so it has asbestos that will have to be completely abated before we can do any major renovations. So basically, we have to close the mall."
Once renovations are complete, the ACC campus will expand into that side of the mall with space for media and arts, IT and flexible work space for companies to rent out. The businesses there now will not be able to come back.
As of now, Ballet Afrique does not have a new place to go. "I could, you know, raise up my prices but I don't want to do that," said Smith. "I want to be able to continue what I'm doing, at the rates that I'm giving so that these families can continue."
Smith has tried to work with ACC to find space in the college and with AISD to use the new performing arts center. She has not been able to reach an agreement with either.
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