Smooth groove: The behind-the-scenes story of Mayor Woodfin’s dance video

Local News
October 02 2021 06:00 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — On election night, Ursula Smith wasn’t following the latest updates on the Birmingham mayoral race. She was doing something much more important: pretending to be a Power Ranger.

Smith was playing with her son, a blue Power Ranger, when she sat down to rest and saw her phone blowing up with the news: the dance video she had directed and choreographed for Birmingham’s top public official had been released at one of the most important moments so far in Mayor Woodfin’s career.

Smith, the owner of Ursula Smith Dance in Birmingham, spoke with CBS 42 at length Thursday, providing us with a behind-the-scenes interview about the origin and creation of the video, which has been viewed thousands of times since its release.

Ursula Smith grew up in East Lake and considers herself a true “daughter of Birmingham.”

She began dancing at a young age — in preschool — but said she had a hard time seeing herself represented in the discipline. She said she doesn’t have the typical story of those who become professionals in the dance industry.

“Growing up — how I grew up, where I grew up — I didn’t really see, I was unable to identify myself, in something that I was so passionate about,” she said. “As a black girl growing up in Birmingham, I was full of energy. I knew I loved to move. I knew I loved to dance. But it wasn’t until I started seeing it through different programming in school that I thought it was possible.”

Smith began to participate in programs through school and her church, and it was that spark that helped her develop a passion for the arts.

“It helped shape and mold me to build something where I could provide a platform for girls and boys to come to develop their artistic expression,” she said.

She succeeded in making that dream come to life, opening her own studio, which has now served the Magic City for 22 years.

Now, Ursula Smith and her dance legacy has been woven even more tightly into the fabric of Birmingham’s storied culture and history. Smith’s video featuring Mayor Woodfin and Kendra Morris served as a strong signal on Tuesday night that the city’s top politician was declaring a re-election victory.

The video, though, was not made to serve that purpose, Smith said.

“I’m going to be honest,” she told CBS 42. “It really wasn’t an election video. Whether people know it or not, the mayor — he has an artist inside of him. He said ‘Ursula, I love this song, and I want to do something to this song.'”

The video features the song “Essence” by WizKid, an African musician. It was the first Nigerian song to ever chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

“But it really had nothing to do with the election,” Smith said. “It wasn’t even his idea to do the video. It was mine. What I wanted to do was share the gift of art, dance, life, happiness, joy with the City of Birmingham: it was something I saw in the mayor.”

Mayor Woodfin originally asked Smith to help him come up with a dance to the song for himself, not for a video performance, she said. When she saw him perform, though, she pushed for permission to make a video.

“The effect that it had, seeing him in a light where he’s embracing life and just embracing joy, I just wanted to share that with the city of Birmingham,” she said. “And he entrusted me to do that.”

Smith said that it only took the mayor one rehearsal to learn the dance and one more to perfect it.

Woodfin’s dance partner, Kendra Morris, had an even more difficult task: to do the “smooth groove” in heels.

“Kendra was amazing to work with. Both of them were eager to learn,” Smith said. “She’s another beautiful soul. She was very sweet. She came in and did her thing, and she had to do it in heels. I commend her for that. Shout out to Kendra.”

Morris even allowed Smith to choose the dress she wore in the video: “She trusted me enough to do that.”

In total, Woodfin and Morris rehearsed for three-and-a-half hours, and the filming took about two hours, Smith said.

The video begins with a shot that moves up from the ground to reveal the mayor and the City of Birmingham behind him.

“It was symbolic of Birmingham, Smith said. “What was, what is, and what’s to come.”

Another shot features Woodfin and Morris dancing in front of the entrance to the Rotary Trail, which Smith said the site “signifies so much history in Birmingham.”

As for the dance itself, Smith said that it’s not a specific genre, but the result of what she called “Ursula creativity.”

She said the dance was inspired by Afro-Cuban dance, bachata, and line dancing.

“It’s a little fusion of everything,” she said. “The groove of it was right. It was smooth.”

When Smith took a break from playing Power Rangers and found out the video was released, she didn’t even consider what it meant politically or electorally.

“I was super proud,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking about the election.”

Since the video’s release, Smith has said that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

She said her e-mail has been “swamped” with words of encouragement and requests from people for lessons and other services. As of Thursday, Smith was still trying to answer emails from Tuesday night.

In the end, she hopes the video serves as a reminder to the citizens of Birmingham in the midst of challenging times: “We’ve always been resilient. We’ve always been great. We’ve always overcome.” 

CBS 42 reached out to the Woodfin campaign about the video, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

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