Dance teacher embodies poise, perseverance

By Kristen Tribe | Published Saturday, December 31, 2016

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En Pointe

EN POINTE – Instructor Karen Smith coaches her dancers. Smith was a professional ballerina before a car accident ended her career. She couldn’t leave the world of ballet, so Smith began to teach. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

When I first met ballet teacher Karen Smith, I was incredibly self-conscious in her presence.

She is a woman of precision, discipline and quiet fortitude.

I’m more like a whirlwind on the verge of a mental breakdown.

I had wanted to interview her for years, but frankly, was too scared to ask. I’d been told she wouldn’t grant an interview because she didn’t want to be in the spotlight, preferring for her students to be the center of attention.

But from what little I’d heard, I knew she had an incredible story. Over the course of time, I got to know Karen better, and last summer the stars aligned for an interview.

Karen is an incredibly warm, genuine person who has poured her heart and creativity into young dancers for 30 years. She is the face of Wise Ballet and Music Academy and has become well-known for her annual, full-length productions using dancers of all ages and abilities. And this year, to the delight of local arts enthusiasts, she added “The Nutcracker.”

To choreograph and plan productions of such magnitude with young dancers is an incredible feat. But Karen makes it look easy.

In fact, her influence and teaching methods are such that the dancers enjoy rehearsals and think of the studio as home. They work hard for her.

“She’s so patient and loving and kind, but she wants you to be the best that you can be,” said Jessica Browning, a former student who now teaches alongside Karen. “She pushes you.”

On a personal note, I was excited to learn through the course of the interview that Karen danced with my mom’s cousin at Texas Christian University and the Fort Worth Ballet (which later became Texas Ballet Theater) in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was one of those “small-world” moments that meant a lot to me. These two women that I look up to and admire shared the same stage. I was starstruck.

Karen trained under and later taught for TCU department head Fernando Schaffenburg, who danced with the American Ballet Theater in New York City, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Ballet of the City of Mexico.

But her professional dancing career was suddenly cut short. On July 4, 1986, she broke her back in a car accident. It was devastating. Her recovery was slow and painful.

Over time her broken body was restored, but it’s still hard to talk about.

“It was really hard going and watching a ballet after that,” she said. “I didn’t think I could ever go watch another one.”

Her eyes filled with tears … and so did mine.

Karen could have called it quits after that. She could have grown bitter and angry, turning her back on ballet. She could have closed that door forever.

But instead she opened another one. She opened her own studio and has shared her passion with generations of dancers, some of which have pursued ballet professionally.

She has inspired many, including me. Although I would be the laughingstock of any dance class, her dedication to local youth and helping them become great people is a cue we should all follow.

Kristen Tribe is editor of the Messenger.

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