Norwood, Mass. — ``They were all clowns. They're being very well-behaved right now, but they're crazy people.'' This is how Shirley Smith describes her brood of creative children as they grew up against a clamorous background of music and dance.
``I'd say, `Kerry, get the milk,' and she'd dance over to the refrigerator. And as a kid, Ricky had pots all over the floor because he was interested in drums and had learned that a spoon on a pot made a noise.''
``My first drum set was an ironing board,'' Rick, now a young man, points out.
``This place was just hysterical,'' laughs daughter Kim. ``We were the type of family that would have the music on and would all be dancing around. If we played cards, we made up our own rules.''
The family roared at the recollections as we sat around the kitchen table. They could afford to be jocular. Their hectic artistic evolution has led to solid results: Kerry, a choreographer, has founded her own performing-arts school. Kim is a successful music educator at a high school in Wakefield, Mass. Rick, a singer-composer, has a rock band of his own that performs locally. And for the multi-talented Dineen (her nickname is ``Dini,'' pronounced ``Deenee'') - at 21 the youngest child - the future seems wide open.
``I wanted them to be what they wanted to be,'' Shirley says. ``I'm a firm believer that from a very early age, if you see any promise in children at all - expand it. Let them do everything.''
``My mother always had all these really creative things to occupy us,'' Kim remembers. ``If it was raining out, most kids got bored and didn't know what to do. But my mother would say, `Okay, Kim, let's draw.' And it was always, `Kim, that's beautiful! You're a great artist.' So I thought I was a great artist, and therefore kept drawing. I don't think any of us has ever had any question that we were the best at what we did.
``And my parents never, ever told us to turn the music down. Kerry would have the stereo blasting while she was dancing in another room, and we'd be blasting on our instruments, and Dini had her music blasting while she was dancing.
``My mother always encouraged us to use our imagination,'' Kerry adds, ``and Kim and I - we're very close in age - used to play a lot of role-playing games. That helped me a lot, because I'm not a dancer any more, I'm a choreographer. And what a choreographer does is listen to music and use his or her imagination, which is a very childlike quality. I was able to keep mine until later in life, while a lot of people my age they lose their imagination.''
At the age of 21, Kerry opened the Academy of Performing Arts in Norwood. It started as a dance school.
``Then about two years ago, I hired a voice instructor and a drama instructor,'' she says. ``Since then the school's grown. My brother opened a school that's affiliated with mine -- a music school. I head up a dance department, and my brother heads up the music department.''
Kerry's dance-consciousness started with Irish step-dancing, which she took from age 6 to 12.
``My father's side of the family is very Irish,'' she explains about her father, Richard, now separated from Shirley.
``I feel my grandmother motivated me a lot, and I started performing when I was in high school. I was in a jazz/tap group.
``Once we got out of school, everybody's free time was the opposite of mine. As a performer, I worked many nights and rehearsed the other nights. You didn't get to see your school friends. My friends were the people in the dance company. Then when I opened my school, it was the same thing. My friends were the people I worked with, my students.
``I gave up a lot of the normal high school things,'' Kerry continues. ``I didn't go to college, so I missed that wonderful experience. Even now, I work from 4 to 10 at night, where most people come home at 5 and are socializing.
``But it was something I chose to do. I don't regret it. Very few people understand. My friends didn't understand why I did what I did, and why I was the way I was. The only people who really did understand was my family.''
``Our whole family has always been very tight-knit in support of one another,'' Kim notes. ``Our parents never missed any performance that any of us ever did as we were growing up. And they always encouraged the other ones to be at everything. So nowadays, if Kerry has a dance recital, Dini will be helping her with some choreography ideas, or my mother will be designing costumes, and Ricky will be doing the sound, and I'll be helping her with the programs. Ricky has actually done the music for some of Kerry's dances.''
``He's my left-hand man,'' Kerry puts in. ``I mean, my recital wouldn't run without Rick, because he does all my sound.''
Rick is also percussion instructor for the high school where Kim who recently took a new job as band director, after teaching music for three years at the Norwood junior and senior high schools.
``My biggest teaching philosophy is positive reinforcement,'' Kim says, ``because as kids we received it all the time. I started on the clarinet when I was in the fourth grade, picked up the trumpet in high school, and finally when I went to college as a music major, I also picked up the sax. I was always involved in marching bands, concert bands, orchestras, jazz bands, etc., performing.''
But from the beginning Kim's real love, she points out, was teaching. ``My dream was not to be a professional musician, but to do basically what I do now - because I love kids.''
For Rick, on the other hand, being a professional musician has been a cherished goal.
``When I was in third grade, and I really had no idea I was going to pursue a career in music. Then one day this drummer in the jazz band did this incredible drum solo. At first I just wanted to play the bells, but in order to get to the bells and the piano, I had to pick up the drums and play rudiments, and that's how I got into it.''
``I think you should mention your composing, too,'' Kerry suggests.
``I've been working on some over the past four or five years,'' Rick says. ``I'm really inspired to do it because of Kerry with her dance studio. She has a lot of very talented kids that are dancing, and they need tunes.''
The way his band started sounds like an old movie script. Rick and a guitarist friend had just joined forces when ``the phone rang and it was a lady from [nearby] Foxboro,'' he recounts, ``asking if I had a band together and if we wanted to do a gig in two weeks! I'm sitting there with my hand over the phone, I look at the calendar, and I look at John, and I ended up saying, `We'll take the job.' We had no sound equipment! No songs! We scrounged for 24 hours and we got 40 songs done. By the end of that first performance we were signing autographs for all these kids. That's when I really started to enjoy the performance area.''
``I think everybody needs something like that to help them find their identity,'' says Kim. ``I don't think our educational systems are atuned to creativity, so if students are artistic they usually don't discover it until after they've gotten out of school.
``The arts is an free-expression business. In a family with a lot of that expression, it definitely carries over to the arts in later life.''
If Dini has anything to do with it, when she decides to marry, that freedom will prevail in the next generation of her own family.
``My daughter's going to be a dancer,'' she asserts. ``I've always said that.''