“I’m Lancaster proud… I’m hometown Lancaster proud,” beams Cody Smith. “I love what’s been going on in downtown Lancaster—the resurgence, all the art. Lancaster is an amazing place to live. I’m so proud that I’m from here, and I’m just so happy that the community also embraces what I do and supports me as much as they do.” An avid performer, choreographer, and director, Cody’s name is widely known in the Lancaster arts scene.
As a child growing up in the Hempfield area, Cody danced to Disney records and performed plays with his neighbors and sisters in his basement. But he never seriously considered the arts until high school. “I always tell people that if I had never gone to Hempfield, I probably wouldn’t have found dance or theater. I started Hempfield Dance Theater and the spring musicals in my freshman year.” It was there, with the guidance of his mentor—Hempfield teacher and Dance Theater director Pat Kautter— that Cody’s love of the arts truly emerged.
“For the first time, I found something that looked so effortless, but was really challenging and hard for me. I liked that it was hard, and I liked that not everyone could do it, and that’s why I fell in love with dance. It was like, ‘Wow, I’ve found something I’m good at that not everyone else can do, and I like it!’”
Cody danced his way through all four years of high school, and then earned a degree in advertising and public relations from Penn State. He worked briefly at Fly Magazine, but then decided to quit his job and move to New York City. “I got really lucky,” he admits. “I moved to New York in August. It was 2:00 in the morning and I was still setting up my room. I said to my roommate, ‘I’m going to the Radio City audition tomorrow.’ I didn’t even know how to get there on the subway. I got up at 7:00 in the morning, went to the audition, which was at 10:00 a.m. I came home at 2:30 in the afternoon, and I said, ‘I think I booked it.’ And here I did. I booked the Radio City Christmas Spectacular on my first day that I moved to New York! And the rest was kind of history. I did the tour for one year, and this coming season will be my 16th in New York City.”
Cody has settled into a hectic yearly routine, living in Lancaster for nine months out of the year and traveling to New York City for the other three months to perform at Radio City, where he serves as a “swing” for all of the male dancers on the show and is also in the ensemble. During his nine months at home, he can be found performing, directing, and choreographing around Lancaster.
A quick search of Cody’s name online results in a long list of credits from local productions at the Fulton Theater, including roles in Newsies, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and A Chorus Line, as well as directing and choreographing credits at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. However, his true love lies in giving back to the high school that shaped his career—directing the spring musical and Dance Theater program at Hempfield High School.
“Ever since I graduated, Pat [Kautter] had me come back and choreograph, and then I was an assistant director with Kristin Pontz and got the opportunity to take over the program. I really did it because I wanted kids to have the same opportunities that I had when I was in high school. The program means a lot to me because it made me who I am.”
“I have found great joy in directing high school students,” Cody continues. “It’s because of their energy… If you can inspire a high school student, they’ll try anything. They’re like, ‘All right, let’s do it. Let’s do it, I can do it.’ Getting them inspired about the arts is probably why Pat did it for so long, and I realize why it is so exciting and fulfilling.”
As he nears his 40th birthday, Cody has come full circle, now serving as the mentor for students just like him. He is quick to dispel the myth of the “starving artist” lifestyle, teaching his students that with hard work they can accomplish their goals. “There’s always going to be someone who can do it better,” he says. “There’s always someone who can direct better than me, or choreograph or dance better than me, but as long as I put my best foot forward and do my best, I’m going to succeed and I’m not going to feel guilty about that. And with that mantra, I’ve been able to do this for a living.”
“Yes, I’ve done odd jobs, but I’ve never waited a table,” he insists. “I think that old adage scares people away from the arts, but I don’t think it has to. The more people work hard and focus on honing their crafts—I don’t see how they can’t succeed in one way or another. There’s always a place in the arts for someone with passion.” Thankfully, Cody plans on sharing his passion for the arts with the Lancaster community for the foreseeable future.
We extend our deepest sympathy to the friends and family of Pat Kautter as she passed shortly after this interview.