If one of her students is having a problem, dance instructor Roneisha Smith-Davis wants the child to bring it to the floor of her North Philly studio and “dance on it.”
Though her students range in age from 2 to 17, some already have a lifetime’s worth of experiences to dance out.
Over the five years Smith-Davis has owned Bella Ballerina Dance Academy, several of her students have lost a parent, some from gun violence.
“It’s a sad reality,” she said.
One student, 14-year-old Natyra Ransom, lost both of her parents in that short span.
“Natyra doesn’t talk often, so I tell her, ‘Get in the studio, look at yourself in the mirror, and just dance,’ ” Smith-Davis said. “Literally take that song and dance your pain away.”
Smith-Davis, 27, who owns the dance studio and the day-care center next door, has influenced Ransom so much that the normally quiet teen wrote a stirring email to nominate her teacher for “We the People,” this series about the people who make Philly extraordinary.
“She is awesome, because of her I know that I can dream, and dreams do come true,” Ransom wrote. “Our dance school is different, we do more than dance, we live the Arts.”
Born in North Philadelphia, Smith-Davis came out of the womb dancing, or at least that’s the story her mother tells.
Today, strangers stop her on the street to ask if she’s a dancer. Those closest to Smith-Davis have told her that she even looks like she’s dancing in her sleep.
Smith-Davis’ career began at the age of 3, when she took her first dance class. As a teen, she joined both the Sixers Junior Dance Team and the New York Knicks City Kids dance team. She also attended Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
After getting her degree in early childhood education at Temple University, Smith-Davis followed her dreams to Los Angeles. There, she studied for a summer under her role model, Debbie Allen, and tried out for the Los Angeles Lakers dance team. She said she made it into a final round before being told her petite frame was a “younger body type” than the team was looking for.
Shortly thereafter, Smith-Davis’ mother broke her ankle, putting her out of work for six months. Smith-Davis came back to Philly to care for her.
“I really think this was God telling me to come back home and open a dance studio,” she said.
Smith-Davis knew she wanted to open her studio in North Philly, so she could teach kids there not to be consumed by their environment or a perceived lack of opportunities. She wanted to show her students that they could use their abundant gifts to take them wherever they wanted to go.
“My mission was to give the students something I had but they might not have being raised in North Philadelphia,” said Smith-Davis, who grew up in North and Northeast Philly.
Before she met Smith-Davis, Ransom said she’d “never heard or knew anything about the performing arts because my parents couldn’t afford dance school.”
Ransom’s first year at the dance academy was funded by a scholarship Smith-Davis gives out every year in her grandmother Ella’s memory.
“She uses the Arts to connect families [and] communities and she has brought the Arts to the hood,” Ransom wrote of Smith-Davis. “She could take her dance program any where but she chose our neighborhood and I’m so glad she did.”
Although it is a dance school, Smith-Davis places equal — if not greater importance — on academics, travel and community service. She’s not only shaping dancers, she’s giving her students the unwritten steps — confidence, compassion and kindness — needed to successfully execute the most complicated of all dances: life.
“If you need something to eat she will feed you, if you need a place to sleep she will take you home with her, if you need books and a uniform for school she will get it for you, she goes above for all of us. I wonder how she does it,” Ransom said of Smith-Davis. “She is our hero.”
“Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. It’s my home. The City of Brotherly Love. It’s pretty much my goal — I want my kids to love each other, but I want them to love the community in which they were raised. Presenting opportunities and then to give back is always the mission of why Philly.”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“A classic Philly moment would have to be when Obama won the presidential election. I was at Temple and the parade down Broad Street was phenomenal. And then to turn around and have the Phillies parade. Phenomenal. And then to see everyone come together for the Eagles parade, it’s like our city could be a powerful city if we came together and loved one another.”
If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?
“To love one another. We could be a force to reckon with. When I go to other places, they be like, ‘Oh my God, Philly, Philly, Philly, Philly, Philly!’ But when I’m in Philly, they’re like, ‘Ugh!’ The drag is just always different. If people were so positive about life and used the 24 hours that everybody got, the city could be a much better place.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at email@example.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
Want more we the people?
- Last week’s profile: Larry Schnell, a butcher who has worked in the Italian Market for 30 years, has a meat-cute story about how he met his wife.
- From Feb. 28: For 35 years, Anthony Rodriguez has manned the door at one of Philadelphia’s finest hotels.
- From Feb. 21: Recovery advocates Jose Ferran Jr. and Eric Sollenberger “live being the City of Brotherly Love as opposed to just using the words.”
- From Feb. 14: Teacher Matthew Kay founded a slam poetry league for Philly students and he’s written the book on talking about race in the classroom.
- From Feb. 7: Nakia Maples, who is known online as the “Philly Plant Guy,” has more than 200 plants in his South Philly home.
- From Jan. 31: Rich Friedrich is in charge of making the 10,000 wings needed for Philly’s annual Wing Bowl event.
- From Jan. 24: Sunny Bear is a Philly dog with more than 41,000 Twitter followers who channels The Art of War.
- From Jan. 17: Brothers Joe and Vince Lattanzio tackle the Eagles’ dirty laundry at their South Philly dry-cleaning shop.
- From Jan. 10: Every Wednesday for 27 years, Kurt Martin has played the piano at the Lits Building food court.
- From Jan. 3: At 88, Elaine Peden, who secured honorary U.S. citizenship for William and Hannah Penn, crashed a VIP event to meet Joe Biden.
- From Dec. 27: Bucks County native Tracy Locke is one half of Girls Gone Green, a Philadelphia Eagles song parody duo.
- From Dec. 20: Every Christmas season, Benjamin Franklin impersonator Robert DeVitis gets into character to ring the red kettle bell for the Salvation Army.
- From Dec. 13: Hip-hop Grandpop Matt Hopkins busts holiday dance moves at City Hall.
- From Dec. 6: People pay $1 just to take a photo of Anthony Smith and his dogs, Noodles and Diva. Smith takes his well-dressed dogs to events around the city in his bicycle basket.
- From Nov. 29: Danie Ocean, a musician with a rare eye disease that’s left her legally blind, is one of the founders of a co-op music studio that requires its members to do community service.
- From Nov. 22: Nearly every day for 17 years, oil painter Mark Campana has hauled his easel from his home in South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square to paint scenes in and around the park.
- From Nov. 15: Haircuts 4 Homeless barber Brennon Jones continues to serve people who are homeless at his new barbershop, which was given to him by a stranger who was inspired by his mission.
- From Nov. 8: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
- From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.