B’ella Ballerina: Where Every Ballerina is Beautiful, Inside and Out
When I arrive early at a small studio space at 1124 Buttonwood Street, I’m greeted by owner Roneisha Smith-Davis, a lifelong dancer-turned-studio-director. She’s very busy when I enter, answering phone calls, sending her students off, and talking paperwork. The studio is humming with children’s laughter and landed moves, music faintly bumping from a back corner. One young woman walks by and places an SAT book down on the table as others perform a routine behind her.
B’ella Ballerina prides itself as an organization where academics meet extracurriculars and confidence meets professional edge.
“I get to be in training company one and I get to travel everywhere with them. I get to experience things that other people cannot do that I can do,” said Simone, 9, a student of Smith-Davis’. “I want to be a professional dancer one day.”
Of all of the students I spoke to, the consensus was the same: The kids are in it to win it and their tenure at B’ella Ballerina is a big boost to their careers and confidence.
“We have different opportunities, we’re different from other dance schools,” said Sanaa, another student. “Other dance schools don’t really get the opportunity to travel around and dance for different people. We get to dance at parties, proms, [and other events].”
“When I first came here, I wasn’t that good of a dancer,” said Simone, “but as I came here I kept getting better and better.”
The company has just returned from a trip to Disney, where they performed “with other dance schools from around the world,” said Nasir, 13. “It was fun. It was a good experience.”
Nasir has learned a lot at B’ella Ballerina, including dance terminology and new moves.
“I didn’t really think that I would be a dancer at all,” Nasir said, “but once I came here, after my first class, I thought that I could make this a career. I actually did things that I didn’t know I was able to do, so I thought, ‘Why not excel?’”
He now aspires to perform on Broadway.
Other students echoed similar dreams and sentiments. Kaliyah, 8, said that she gets to express herself at B’ella.
“I want to have a career [in dance],” she said. “I want to be like Miss Roneisha.”
“Miss Roneisha” Smith-Davis has been dancing for her entire life.
“Wherever there was an audition, she wanted to be there. Roneisha wrote it down when she was two; we still have it,” her mother, Jacqueline Upshur Davis, said. “‘I want to be a dance teacher, I want to have a dance floor, and I want to be a professional dancer.”
As a child, financial constraints often prevented Smith-Davis’ friends and family from being able to watch her showcase her talents, as she’d often perform out of the area. So, Smith-Davis decided to open her studio in North Philly, her home.
“A lot of the parents say, ‘Thank you for bringing the arts back to the community, because we didn’t have that for so long,’” said Smith-Davis. “I’m a thinker. If I have something in my head, I’m going to do it by all means, and for so long I just used to say, ‘Just give me the space. If someone would just give me the space […] I’d open up.”
Smith-Davis’ studio is named, in part, for her late grandmother, Ella-Mae Smith and, in part, for the message of inner and outer beauty the studio works to imbue in students.
The first incarnation of B’ella Ballerina was in a carpeted space on the second floor of Smith-Davis’ friend’s daycare program. After promoting her studio on social media, Smith-Davis saw a roughly 50 person turnout on registration day without the aid of flyers or other promotional materials and her crew was loyal.
“Parents who knew that I danced and had so much passion, who were waiting for me to open, came. I think all but three of the group [of students] you spoke with have been with me since I opened,” she said.
As I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floors with Smith-Davis and her students, she told me about her own struggles with body image and exclusion.
“What’s our slogan?” she asked, gesturing to her students.
As a chorus, they recite: “Every ballerina and dancer is beautiful inside and out.”
She tells me that the slogan came to her after she made the top 46 at a dance audition in L.A., but was rejected in the final round.
“She went out to L.A. on her own, and I prayed, and I was afraid, but that was something that she wanted to do. So she went out to the audition, and that was big for her. There were 500 people, and she made it to the finals,” says Upshur Davis.
“My dance skills were there, but because I didn’t look like the rest [of the dancers], I didn’t get in. And I was like, ‘What did I audition for, did I audition for a dance team or did I audition to be a model?” she said.
This discouraged Smith-Davis, but not for long.
“After putting some thought into it I’m like ‘Okay, I can’t let that stop me. One ‘no’ could be someone else’s ‘yes.’’
“That was in July of 2013, and in October of 2013, the dance school came about,” Smith-Davis said. “Everybody’s going to look different, but if you have the skills, use it, and don’t let anyone stop you because of it. That’s pretty much where the slogan came from and the body positivity.”
The studio hopes to be a safe place for students to thrive personally and academically. Smith-Davis and Upshur Davis both express the importance of involving youth in positive programs to combat the issues many find themselves in while navigating the tangled thickets of growing older.
“I’ve realized that keeping Roneisha involved in dance kept her out of a lot of the negativity of coming up as a teen,” said Upshur Davis. “It encouraged her to be the young woman that she is today, and I say that to a lot of the parents. Having [kids] in an extracurricular activity makes them a more well rounded individual. I watch how they come here, and to get them off the streets with all of the violence and the bullying and things like that… here, it’s safe. They can dance, they can hang out. It’s most important.”
B’ella Ballerina runs a dance school from September to June, a summer camp from July to August, aftercare that runs after hours during the summer camp season, and workshops. In summer, teens and adults who wish to take recreational lessons can take part in adult workshops. B’ella also offers fitness classes run by Smith Davis’s brother.