Hitting New Horizons: Choreographer Kia Smith




By Judy Carmack Bross




Kia Smith, Executive Artistic Director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre


When she was five years old, choreographer Kia Smith lined up her teddy bears on the sofa to explain their roles in her dance company.  The South Side resident always knew what her career would be and lucky Chicagoans will see how she made her dreams come true when her repertory company presents “New Horizons” at the Auditorium Theatre April 27.  Dance Magazine named her one of 25 to watch for 2024, writing:  “Smith’s success lies not only in her artistic acumen but also in the way she considers dance and the business of it on a large scale.”


“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley”, choreographed by Kia Smith          Photo: Michelle Reid


The Executive Artistic Director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, Smith’s seventh season will present the premieres of Jazz and Contemporary dance works by six choreographers.  Four of the choreographers, including Smith, are Chicagoans: Monique Haley, the first black woman in River North Dance Chicago who has choreographed an Afro Jazz work; Joshua Blake Carter, former director of Giordano II who will introduce a Contemporary Jazz work, and Terry Marling, presenting a Contemporary work. Other choreographers are Taiwanese choreographerTsai Hsi Hung, introducing a Contemporary work and global choreographer Donald Byrd presenting a Modern work.


“Last year we debuted at the Auditorium Theatre. Performing in that beautiful and historic theater will be as it was when we danced at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance, just a spectacular opportunity.  I tell my dancers however that when we perform for Chicago Public School students in lunchrooms and other school spaces, those opportunities are just as important. No stage is more important than another.”


Although she had her first lessons from ages 3 to 5 at the Mayfair Performing Company where she remembers studying West African dance when she first told her bears that one day she would have a company of her own, her formal dance training didn’t start until high school when she took a 45-minute dance class at school.


“That definitely wasn’t very comprehensive, but I received a summer scholarship to study at with the Joel Hall Dancers in Andersonville. Realizing that the commute was too long from my home to that studio during school months, I asked the teacher at the Hyde Park School of Dance if I could study there.  I received a scholarship and also worked part time there including as a teaching assistant for young children. I had grown up watching dance on TV, and remember that PBS presented beautiful ballet. I had no idea that a dancer studied four or five days a week. 


“When I finally started at the Hyde Park School of Dance, I realized that I was behind in technique and other skills, but I really wanted to be a part of that world.  I danced with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in Los Angeles before moving back to Chicago in 2013 to become a freelance choreographer.  “I love the leadership and administrative part of running a company, I embraced getting my feet on the ground and presenting our company’s first performance in 2017.”


“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley”, choreographed by Kia Smith          Photo: Michelle Reid


Smith works from two calendars: her company’s and her own. On her personal calendar, she is gearing up to fulfill a commissioned choreography for the Kansas City Dance Company and for an upcoming opera.  “When different companies call me to create a commissioned work, I usually go in for a week and work with their dancers on a 15-20 minute performance.  I work fast on this, and with my own company it is a longer process.”


The company that she dreamed about years ago will tour South Korea once again as well, debut at the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires, and appear at various venues and festivals before returning to the Auditorium Theatre in 2025.  


The South Chicago Dance Theatre has nine full time dancers in its main company and an associate and emerging artist program for a total of 16 dancers.  “Our main company dancers receive both salary and benefits, sustaining them is so important.  Our emerging artists are more like interns, receiving payments for performances and travel stipends.”


“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley”, choreographed by Kia Smith          Photo: Michelle Reid


“Every choreographer does things a little differently.  For me, everything is in the moment.  I would have done lots of research on music and outside influences from other artistic fields.  Some choreographers improvise everything in the studio. I move fast, and the dancers probably learn 45 minutes of movement by watching me, and then I shave and shave things off to a point where there is much less time.  In my current work there are 17 actual minutes of dance.


 “A dancer does every movement in their own different way.  Everyone makes it come alive, showing what it means to them.”


We asked Smith to tell us more about why dance is magical.


“When I am dancing I feel at my most authentic that I am fully embodied in what I want to do. When I am in an audience I feel uniquely energized, dance really is all about hope, hope for humanity for the future, everything just seems to come together.”


“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley”, choreographed by Kia Smith          Photo: Michelle Reid


To purchase tickets go to: mytickets.auditoriumtheatre.org