Beloved Chicago dance company founder honored at festival

LaToya Smith jostled and bustled around part of Grand Crossing Park on Wednesday evening as a warm August sun shone on hundreds of people dancing, queuing to eat and having fun.

Smith, owner of the Ultimate Threat Dance Org. team, and the rest of the party were at South Side Park to celebrate the dance group’s 12th anniversary, as they had done every year since the group’s inception on August 10, 2010. But while morale was high, the memory was in the air.

Verndell “Vee” Smith II – a partially deaf but gifted dancer who has mentored generations of children as an activist against gun violence – started Ultimate Threat, in part to help keep kids out of trouble. But in May 2021, the 32-year-old father and beloved dance coach was gunned down outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Park Manor neighborhood, leaving a family in mourning and the dance community shaken.

Police arrested Diontay Kimberly and charged him with one count of first-degree murder in Smith’s death. He is being held without bail. His next court date is Aug. 22, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

In the meantime, Smith’s loved ones have pledged to keep his dream alive.

The annual celebration on August 10 is now known as “Vee Day”.

“It’s something to look forward to every year, and now it’s a way to keep his memory and his name alive,” his sister said.

This Saturday, the Ultimate Threat dance team is also set to perform at the Bud Billiken Parade and LaToya Smith says the plan this year is to step out “with a positive attitude”.

“Last year was really sad for us,” she said. “This year we are moving to a more uplifting location. We want to go there and we want to show what we have. The kids have been training all summer and we’re going to give it our all.

With around 50 children on the dance team, his sister said she hopes her brother’s legacy of giving children a safe place to hang out and stay away from the streets will live on.

“We take all of these young adults and give them something positive to do,” she said. “We want to continue to make this happen for the kids and for Verndell.”

She said that taking over Ultimate Threat after her brother’s death was “definitely a new world”, but she felt somewhat confident because she had helped her brother with the band from time to time behind the scenes.

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Before the party at the park on Wednesday, children from seven dance teams marched about 10 blocks to the park. Latoya Smith said it was good to see more people come to see the parade this year, as last year there was only the group itself and only three dance teams participating.

Once at the park, people watched more dance teams perform, feasted on food, played games, listened and danced to music from a DJ truck and more. Latoya Smith also said that the group was able to raise funds and buy backpacks to give away to students at the festival.

She said she hopes the parade and festival will only get bigger and better in the future, and that everyone can see “the love everyone had for my brother and the love we have for each other”.

Gloria “Glo” Thomas said she was a community member who supported Ultimate Threat since its inception and “became part of the community family” after meeting LaToya Smith. She said seeing the parade and festival on Wednesday and knowing he had grown so much had already brought tears to his eyes because “that’s what he wanted”.

She said she hopes “Vee Day” and Ultimate Threat will “become something big” for Verndell Smith by involving more kids and people in the community and making sure kids are “on the right track.” way”.

“He had been on this team for 10 and a half years before he got killed,” Thomas said. “He had some recognition, but not like he has now. It hurts to know he’s not there, but his vision was bigger than what we saw, so that’s not it. In order to guide this vision, you must have a better seat from above. He’s got the right person leading the rest of the way, and he’s taken a seat on another level.

sahmad@chicagotribune.com