Michelle Smith is the founder and executive director of METdance. She provides a place where people of the Houston community, and those passing through, can experience the art of dance. The organization serves kids and adults of all ages through classes, pre professional performances, professional performances, and an outreach program for the areas surrounding Houston. The METdance company is in their 21st season and showing no signs of slowing down. METdance has made it this far because of the leadership exhibited by Michelle Smith.
What is the experience you would hope to provide for people who have never been to Houston, are passing through, or are visiting?
We really wanted to tailor the studio much after a New York studio. You can walk into a New York studio any day, any hour, and get a class. It’s a little bit harder here in Houston because you don’t have the dance community that can deal with day time classes. Most everybody works. Our adult program is huge. We see about 750 adults a week through the studio. We became the answer to I don’t’ want to exercise. I don’t want to run. I always wanted to take dance when I was little and never got to. Here you go! Our children's program is pretty much like all the other area studios' children program, but we get a lot of people that are, "hey I’m here in town seeing" or "at work... can I drop in?" Sure. Check online we’ve got classes. "I’m from Chicago and I take classes up in Chicago. Do you have a jazz class?" Yeah. Sure, no problem. There’s a lot of that. You want to provide a place to where people can come, and it’s known for you’re going to get a good class. You don't have to sign your life away. You can walk in and take one class. You're pretty much guaranteed it’s going to be fun. You don’t have any timeframe. It's not like you have to take it for a whole week. I don't even know if LA still does this. They used to do the building program. If you took a class on Monday and then tried to come back on Wednesday, but you missed on Tuesday - You missed like 90% of what the choreography was. We don't do that. Every class is individual. I have like 25 teachers so if you take ballet class on Monday you’re going to get a different ballet class on Thursday. Well that’s great because Monday’s teacher may be all legs. Thursday’s teacher may be all jumps. You’re covered you know. The same thing goes for the company.
We’re trying to create a repertory that is not seen anywhere else. The choreographers that we do bring in, most of them have never been to Texas before. Everybody... people that are in college Station, and Austin, and Dallas will drive in because if you want see Rosie Herrera the only place is Miami or in New York. Well now there's Texas. That’s really what we want to try to create. We actually have three people coming because were presenting one of her works, and they’re from across the nation. We've got one coming from St. Louis one from Louisiana. I think the other is from Michigan. And they’re coming in because they want to see Rosie’s new work. They’ve seen here in Miami. What is she doing now? And I’m thinking of using her so where do I see her? So it becomes that kind of a draw to use those types of choreographers. We have a reputation. Our dancers are known for diversity, so choreographers contact her all the time. I want to come and a work on you. Really? Okay good. Send me your stuff. Why do you want to come? Well because I understand that whatever I do your dancers will be able to do. Then when it gets to the stage it still looks like what I created. It’s not morphed into something you guys do on a regular basis. No, no, no, no. We hold true to their choreography. That is one of her big missions. If it’s supposed to look like Rosie, it looks like Rosie.
Dancer-wise that’s a draw. We hold auditions every year. We hold an audition here in Houston. We also hold an audition in New York. Last year I think they had 120 people audition in New York, and we had 2 positions... which is really cool. It's a good place to be. We don't want anybody to leave. We want them but they’re doing things like getting married, having kids... that kind of stuff. A couple of them turned over 30. They were like I gotta do something. One of our dancers wanted to fly, so he got on a contract with Continental. You’re like ok that makes sense. So some of them... that’s what it is. It's moving on in their life. So having kids... that kind of thing. A couple of them came here, worked a couple of years, and they said ok I think I want to go to New York and try something. Ok go for it. You were in New York, and you came here because there wasn’t work in New York. So something's changed? But some people think that’s where they gotta go. So you let them go. It took Marlena a little bit. She was kind of like oh really? Over 40 years I’ve seen a lot of dancers come and go. There’s always more. Even though every year we fret. Oh my gosh. If so and so leaves what are we going to do. You always find somebody, and they’re always great and bring something new to the plate. You just have to be, something from my childhood, willing to change. You just have to be open and adaptive to it. There’s something new around the corner. It's okay. It just always is.
In my opinion, I feel like there are a lot, not all, but there are a number of well-known professional companies or studios who have become a name, just a name. The quality has changed or the drive, the passion, in what they’re going after has changed. How do you feel you guys work in order to prevent that? Maybe not actively, but what are some qualities you feel you already have?
Oh actually we do. It’s one of the sustainability. It's one of that in a succession plan is what they call it. How do you deal with succession plan? I mean it comes up in almost all strategic. Everyone is like what do you do? I say I’m doing it. I’ve already groomed an artistic director. I have people in place right now. Now number one I’m like, "You trying to get rid of me?" No, no, no, no, no. I'm going to be the 80 year old lady you know, but it’s getting to that point where number one the place is not about me. It has nothing to do with me. It has my energy. So you find people have your same energy and have your same passion. That’s what you do. You find someone who believes in your focus. It’s not about her, it’s about creating. It’s about creating this thing that we do. The equation is to have something that is pretty "ballety", "jazzy", "witty"...something that’s on the edge...something that’s funny. There’s an equation that we look at where when we put on a performance everybody goes ooh. Somebody will find something in every single performance they like. You're not going to like all of it. Nobody does. That’s one of the things I think is the fallacy with a single person run organization.
What would be your advice to someone who wants to do something similar to METdance?
Don’t use levels; as in beginner, intermediate. We were in a big facility for 17 years. In June of 2013 we moved to this space. We’ve only been here for three years. There we were teaching an adult ballet class beginning level. The adults came to us and said “It’s still too hard. I need a beginner. I need below." So we talked to our teachers and everything, and I was like okay, “How about intro?” No training whatsoever needed. So we started an intro class. It worked except we did it in the same premise that we do ours which is: anybody can drop in. Well, that doesn’t quite work. If you have to start over every single week or every couple days. Okay let’s rethink this. Let’s do this. So we started intro classes. No training needed. They’re six weeks long. Adults can see six weeks. You may not be able to see three months. That’s why memberships and a lot of those things don’t work. Somebody goes I don’t know what I’m doing in three months. 6 weeks you can pretty much say hey that’s just a month. That’s December. I can get to December. Then limit the registration. We only take twenty in each class. That’s it. We now have two ballet classes. We have a jazz. We have a hip hop. We have a tap. We have a modern. It’s gone wacko! It took out for us people who went oh you’re Houston Met I can’t take class there with professional people. I can’t take class there. We’re like we have beginning classes. You have to know how to dance before you can walk in there. Really? No. No. That’s not what we were trying to intend, but that’s the impression. As soon as you put intro everybody went, "Oh I can do that." As soon as you put six weeks. Oh I can see six weeks. So I would say do that. Start a limited number program. I can offer this class. It’s for this time period, and you sign up for this time period. Then you take a week off and you start over. That also, by accident, grows beginners. We have some people who live in our intro program. They take a different intro class every six weeks. By the time they’re done they just start all over again. They love it! Especially for adults.
We’re talking people who want to turn off their brain. They want to come to a place, be told what to do, have fun doing it, and exercise. Now we do have our intermediate classes and all those which are the dancer type people. We still have all of that, but we also have this big group of people who: I just come and turn off. The teacher tells me what to do and I have to try process, but I don’t have to think more than a minute. People go I never thought of that. I said well you’re an adult. Think how you would work. Think how you would be able to do it. Right now it’s doing great, and it feeds into all the other stuff.
What are some lessons you’ve learned as a leader?
Compromise. Oh lordy, compromise. Listen. Compromising is also really hard. One of the biggest ones that I’m trying to work on now is listen first and then react because I’m very reactive. I’m very pro ok we're going to fix it. We're going to do it. She'll go we'll need to think about this. Especially if it's financial. I’ve gone through highs, and I’ve gone through very very big lows, I don't like the lows at all. Financially I’m very protective of everything. If anything has to do with money she knows she has to breach it very very carefully. She did it today. We have a meeting with so and so. This is what they’ve got. It's going to cost us this much money. I’m like oh god we can’t do it. We just can’t do it. She goes just hear me out and I’ve already jumped. Then she goes here it is, and I’m like okay. Okay maybe we can do this one and this one. Then you talk it out, and then we figured it out. I have to work on that. I need to listen first, let her present it before I jump. It's normally almost always financially oriented. Compromise.
There’s always work to be done. That was very hard personally. When my kids were in the midst of all this I tended to work myself to nothing because I was not going to give up my kids’ time, but I also worked full time. My daughter was a swimmer. I would get up at 5:00 in the morning with her because I was one of those moms who if she’s going to get up I’m going to get up. I would get her to swim, go back, get the other two kids in to school, go to work. Three or 4:00 in the afternoon, depending on when school was out, gathering kids. I had two soccer players and a swimmer. We divvied up who went to each place. Either I was at a soccer field, or I was at a swimming pool. I did a lot of work in the back of a car. We didn't have computers. This whole computer thing is really cool. I could've worked a lot more. I did a lot of paper schedules, peeling labels, and stuff like that in the back of the car. I wasn’t going to give up either one of those.
One of the things I find that is different with us than a lot of different companies is I’m the founder and executive director, so I started this. I have a lot invested in this. I'm actually moving into that one day I’m going to retire thing. What do I want to do? What do I want to let go? What do I want to dabble in? What do I want to keep? That kind of thing. I go into a room full of executive directors now, like when we have conferences, and there’s maybe, out of 25, maybe one other founder. That's why they don’t get along with the artistic directors... because they have no passion. They were hired to run an organization. There’s no buy-in in that. This is my blood. This is my sweat. This is my heart. If it goes on forever. Great. But I’ll be okay if it also doesn’t. Will it? Yeah. I can see it going on for a long time because it's not about me. It's about those people out there. It’s about having enough teachers to where all those people can take classes. That's what it's about.
What do you feel your major accomplishment has been, and what do you hope to accomplish before you retire?
I was going to say my biggest accomplishment is my kids. It has nothing to do with this place. When we were restructuring because it was a financial hit that took us into a restructuring place. That was when I made that turn because my kids could care less if I worked at McDonald’s or not. So I learned right then and there that I'm not defined by this place. That’s a big place. That’s a big thing. I would say don't let this define you. In the future, I think the fact that we established it and that we see so many people is a really big thing... that we touch so many people in our community... all levels, all ages, all colors, all sizes, all everything. We just touch our community in a huge way. That would be a huge accomplishment to me.
What I would love to do in the future is be able to solidify that to where I know 20 years from now, that whether it is still Houston Met or MET dance or whatever it's morphed into, that there is still a place that adults can come to class and kids can come to take class. If it happens to have a professional outlet great. That's why when we reorganized, when we went from Delia to Houston Met, that’s why I did it. I come in to a studio and was like she wants to retire and leave, but I have classes. I have students. I have children taking classes. What about them? Where are they going to go? So that's where it all lies. I want that to be the success part of this thing. The professional company having national recognition and being able to create what we create... I see that as a perk. I’m getting to participate in this whole element of it...watching the kids grow into professional dancers. That's something that comes out of that. I think because of the motto we look at... like if you look at Peridance in New York...if you look at Broadway Dance Steps in New York. They don’t have professional companies. They also don’t have children's programs. The only thing they do have is the adult classes. I think I really always want a children's program.
Michelle Smith is an incredible leader. After sitting down with her I felt excited. I was able to witness someone who is achieving things that I strive to. Michelle leads with an open mind. She humbly leads a community of leaders. She creates an innovative environment and the results of that are amazing. Michelle learns from experience as well as mistakes, and she shares that knowledge with those around her. I enjoyed having the opportunity to sit down with Michelle. She holds a lot of wisdom and was very selfless about sharing it. Houston is lucky to have her!!