Ninth in a series of stories on this year’s 20 Under 40 winners.
WATERLOO — An aspiring artists’ retreat has sprung up in a spacious historic home in the Highland neighborhood of east Waterloo, and its “mother superior” is Felicia Smith Nalls.
Dancing and performing since she was a child, Nalls, a vocalist with the Cedar Valley Big Band and a University of Iowa law school graduate, has organized “Set the Stage,” a variety show for youths of all ages at East High.
She also has been involved in organizing a revived North End Fest the past several years and was program manager for the first-ever “Bridging the Gap” mayoral ball, initiated by supporters of newly elected Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.
She also helped organize a mentoring program for young girls at East High School in the early 2000s.
She’s a 1995 graduate of West High School. She played basketball, and her team qualified for the girls state basketball tournament. Her younger sister, Nina Smith, also starred for West and played collegiate basketball at Wisconsin.
Felicia graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly in 1999 and the law school in 2004. She has two children — a daughter Jaymes, 7, and a son A.J., 3. A.J. stands for Aaron James and is named for a college-bound former student who died of a blood clot a day before his 18th birthday.
“My house has always been a hostel/arts center/whatever,” Nalls said, for neighborhood kids or kids needing a break. “I’ve had three solid boys whose parents were in jail or out of jail — one of my boys’ moms was pretty addicted to drugs.” She told their folks the kids could stay there.
“They had a chance to study,” she said. “We could get them through school. I was the dance team coach at East High then. And these were exceptionally talented kids. And so my house kind of became the house where artsy kids hung out.”
She teaches tap and jazz in addition to being lead vocalist for the Cedar Valley Big Band. Her husband also has a recording studio in the home for his business.
“So my house, there’s dancers upstairs, there might be a live band out back, rappers in the basement, a singing group in the dining room. My sister comes in and says ‘This is like ‘Fame,’ the 1980s movie and variety show about a performing arts school for talented youth. Your whole house is like a scene out of ‘Fame.’”
“Any time during a week you would see hard-core rappers with little kids, a harem of drag queens in my front yard. People drive by and say, ‘What is going on in your house?’ But I think it’s awesome. It’s going to make my kids awesome,” she said.
She hasn’t let up since becoming a mother. “I added stuff,” she said, handling production and promotion for the mayor’s ball.
“With my kids, it’s feeding them,” Nalls said. “It’s showing them what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to give back. It’s also feeding them these skills and these words and experiences that are beyond me but from these artsy cool people. I’m excited about how they’re going to view the world. They’re going to be world citizens. Their prejudices are not going to be the same. My kids see people.”
“I try to keep a network of people that are active, trying to do something in Waterloo, bringing something here that you don’t see a lot,” she said.
Nalls is the daughter of Waterloo school administrator Bev Smith. Her father, James, played minor-league baseball for the Waterloo Royals in the 1970s.
She was inspired by a production of the musical “Dreamgirls” that came to West High. “I was six years old,” she said. She remembers an opening scene of the second act where the star was dressed in a sequin gown with a cape. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. That’s when she decided “I’m doing that. ... That is me.”
She was inspired to instill that same inspiration in youths. “If I can get some of these kids just to experience what it’s like to have the spotlight hit you, people clapping, I get more of a charge now from being behind the scenes than being in front of them, even though I still do stage stuff,” she said.
Joe Briscoe and Kenesha Davis, who nominated Nalls for 20 Under 40 recognition, wrote, “Although many have advised her it would be more lucrative to relocate, she has chosen to stay in the Cedar Valley to help local teens and young adults find their purpose.”