Kia Smith is running a half-million-dollar organization out of her closet. In 2017, she started South Chicago Dance Theatre with a few dancers, a whole lot of grit, and a 75-year plan taped to the walls of a walk-in closet in her Hyde Park studio apartment. Now? The 35-year-old choreographer has grown SCDT from a scrappy troupe to a major player in Chicago’s dance scene.

The company capped its fifth anniversary last spring with its biggest leap yet, premiering five new works at the Harris Theater, filling all 1,500 seats. Compare that with their previous in-person show, at the Stony Island Arts Bank before the pandemic. “We had like 80 people,” says Smith, who’s also SCDT’s executive artistic director.

Smith, though, isn’t just filling up auditoriums around town — she’s blowing up everywhere. In the past year alone, she’s earned choreography commissions from the likes of the Houston Contemporary Dance Company and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, plus creative residencies in Berlin and at Jacob’s Pillow, the famed dance center in Massachusetts. And she has taken SCDT touring everywhere from Michigan to the Netherlands.

Smith knew by age 5 that she wanted to run a dance company — and that it was going to be on the South Side. She grew up in South Shore, Washington Heights, and Kenwood, and her father, Jimmy Ellis, helped start the storied Hyde Park Jazz Festival, as well as the iconic South Side tradition Jazz in the Alley. That inspired Smith’s next venture: Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley, an evening-length dance opera set to premiere at the Auditorium Theatre in June. While Smith is charting her own course in the arts, she’s also determined to use dance to examine the history and culture of the South Side. Says Smith: “I see what I’m doing as contributing to something that was already here.”