There are people in this world who experience trauma and let it freeze them in pain and fear, forevermore. And then there are people like Christina Daly-Smith, 31, co-owner and founder of Sparrow Dance Productions in Rio Rancho, who come out of unspeakable horrors with a remarkable determination to love harder, bigger and wider, reborn in a conviction that it is only through unrelenting kindness that they can ever offset the forces of evil that spread trauma in our world.
Eight years ago, Daly-Smith was living her dream as a dancer and actress in New York City. Having grown up in Rio Rancho and trained locally with Ballet Repertory Theatre of New Mexico as a girl, she’d left home at 18 to study dance on scholarship at the prestigious Virginia School of the Arts. Later, she would study with the Kansas City Ballet school and Ballet Pacifica. After all that, she moved to New York and founded her own dance company, Sparrow Dance Productions, which put on 18 performances over two years, and got the attention of agents who invited Daly-Smith to work with the cast of the TV musical “Glee.”
And then, everything fell apart.
“I was violently raped by someone I considered to be a friend,” she explained in a recent interview with Weekly Alibi. “I found out I had gotten pregnant from the rape. I decided to have the baby and moved back home to Rio Rancho to seek the support of my family. I could hardly function at all. And then, I had a miscarriage.”
Then, in 2016, Daly-Smith, who had taken a job as the dance program director for Rio Rancho Middle School, a job she still holds and for which she teaches six classes a day, said she was blindsided by news of Victoria Martens, the Albuquerque 10-year-old who was drugged, raped, murdered and dismembered in her own home.
“It completely paralyzed me, emotionally,” said Daly-Smith. “I’d already been through so much, then this. I was in church, praying to God to help me find a way out of this pain, and then, clear as day, I was given this understanding: Let dance be your healing, not just for you, but for others as well.”
Daly-Smith came out of church with the understanding that she had to open a dance school for healing community trauma, she said. She and her husband, James D. Smith, began searching for a space in which they could launch the school, under the same name as Daly-Smith’s New York dance company.
“To me, community trauma means helping the differently-abled,” said Daly-Smith. “And also giving foster children and other child victims of trauma, kids who’ve been so abused they’re afraid to speak or take up space at all, a safe space to take dance or acting, where they will be loved and accepted, where we tell them we want to know who they are, we want to hear them, all of it free of charge.”
In 2017, using only their own salaries from their day jobs (James is co-owner of a company that installs interlock breathalyzers) to cover the costs, the couple took over the lease for a large dance studio space in a nondescript mini-mall in Rio Rancho, and set about realizing their dream. While the studio does have fee-based classes for children and adults, it is the free classes for the disabled and for foster children that set it apart.
On a recent Saturday morning, Daly-Smith taught one such class, combining ballet, jazz and hip-hop for more than a dozen people with special needs. Nydia Valverde watched with pride as her son David Vargas, 20, who was born with agenesis of corpus callosum, participated in the class, smiling and laughing as he leapt and twirled.
“These classes have helped him physically, more than any physical therapy we’ve ever done,” said Valverde. “He has grown in his confidence. Christina and James really care for these students.”
Daina Roberts, whose daughter Alison Roberts, 27, has Down syndrome and also attends the class, told a similar tale. “My daughter has always liked to dance, but it gets harder as they get older and age out of the school programs. She loves coming here.”
Daly-Smith’s commitment to helping those with special needs is deeply personal. She has a younger sister, Ana, now 18, who was born without vocal cords and who has undergone more than 40 surgeries for that and other related issues. Once, when Daly-Smith was 14, she was called out of a dance audition with the news that Ana was being flown by air ambulance to Denver and might not survive. This, she said, was a common occurrence. “It was never a regular ambulance, always Med Flight. She was very frail, and it was incredibly scary.”
That day, at the audition, “they asked me what I wanted to do,” she said. “I remember thinking, at 14, that I had to get back in there and dance, for my family, because if I didn’t dance I feared I would die from grief. We can’t have two deaths, I thought. And so I danced through my tears. I still cry in class sometimes, and I tell my students it’s okay to cry. You cry, and you keep dancing.”
Daly-Smith said demand for the free classes has outstripped the couple’s resources; they are still using their own salaries to cover expenses at the school, including teacher pay. They are currently a couple thousand dollars behind on rent for the studio, and would like to find a volunteer to help them locate and apply for grant money.