Narragansett studio offers mind, body workout to ‘older dancers’
NARRAGANSETT–It’s Thursday, 9:30 a.m., and most of the businesses at Mariner Square Plaza in Narragansett are not yet open. One, however, is already filled with life: The Studio. Behind its signature red door and handcrafted wooden sign on the window, several middle-age women have gathered for their ballet class.
They are not destined to dance at the Bolshoi, nor are they practicing for a recital. But they are devoted and ready for class every week–motivated by their love of ballet and inspired by the passion of their teacher, Marilyn Smayda, owner and artistic director. “Let’s go, let’s go,” Smayda beckons the women in the dressing room, who are eager to chat and catch up with each other’s lives. “Leave five minutes earlier next time,” she warns them with the smile of a good friend and the discipline of a drill sergeant.
Dressed in everything from shrugs to leggings, each dancer dutifully rushes across the large wooden dance floor to her spot on the barre. Melodic strains of a waltz by Shostakovich fill the room and immediately the pli? warm-up begins. “Motivational arms,” Smayda calls out. “Shoulders down, elbows up, follow your hands.” Ballet class has started, and Smayda is right where she belongs–at the helm. Owning a studio with a niche for older dancers was not what Smayda had envisioned when she embarked on her ballet career at the tender age of nine. “I never wanted to teach,” she said. “I wanted to dance.”
In fact, Marilyn Miller of Snug Harbor wanted so desperately to be a professional dancer, that she dropped out of South Kingstown High School in 1959 to join the fledgling ballet company ‘American Festival Ballet’ (the seedling for Festival Ballet in Providence). My father was not happy, but my mother thought it might be good life experience,” recalled Smayda, whose exceptional talent had caught the attention of the company’s director. Sixteen-year-old Smayda boarded a plane for a 15-hour flight to Germany, her first time away from home.
But Smayda soon realized that the chaos of performing throughout Europe left little time for her to develop her own skills as a dancer. The company was ill-prepared to nourish its dancers artistically, despite its talented corps de ballet and accomplished prima ballerina Sonia Arova, who had danced with Rudolf Nureyev. “The reality was awful,” said Smayda who, with the wisdom of a 74-year-old, believes that she should have gone to New York City to study ballet. One year later, Smayda came home disheartened. “I returned to Lydia Pettine’s [the Providence studio where Smayda had trained].
I went to the barre and said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “ For 17 years, Smayda turned her back on dance. She finished high school, worked as a flight attendant, married and had a son.
She earned her degree in Wildlife Management from the University of Rhode Island and settled in Jamestown, where she still resides. Although she had stopped dancing, she never stopped moving. While taking an aerobics class, Smayda met jazz dancer Erja Fischer, who noticed Smayda’s dancing skills and urged her to teach at her studio.
After much coaxing, Smayda said, “I was dancing again and it felt great!” Smayda took ballet seminars in New York City and completed the prestigious Vaganova course on the Russian style of ballet at Bryn Mawr College. With four women she had met with Fischer, Smayda formed a dance ensemble which performed in Rhode Island.
But when Fischer closed her studio, Smayda knew she couldn’t stop again. She and her fellow dancers pooled their resources and incorporated a new business; The Studio was born in 1994. Converting an old furniture store in Mariner Square was a concerted effort. “We all used our skills to re-furbish it,” said Smayda.
The dance studio flourished, with each woman teaching her own specialty. Smayda focused on ballet and pointe, while her business partners each taught jazz, modern and tap. From children to adults, The Studio trained many aspiring dancers and coordinated dozens of recitals.
Eventually Smayda’s colleagues decided to pursue other interests, but Smayda retained full ownership. “I wanted to keep it going,” she said. By 2000, Smayda recognized a gradual shift in her student population. Children’s enrollment declined, but adults were steady.
Ballet and special tap and jazz workshops all attracted diverse, mature dancers. From 20-somethings who wanted to continue their training…to middle-age women who had left dancing to start families…to older dancers who had always wanted to learn but had not had the chance–Smayda’s studio fits the bill. “I think it fulfills a need for all of them that is hard to find elsewhere,” Smayda said.
For 53-year-old mother of five, Connie Lind of North Kingstown, that need is both physical and mental. After a ballet class I am a new woman. I walk into class tired, harried and physically tense and when I leave I am relaxed and free,” said Lind. Lind, who started dancing at The Studio 10 years ago, has found that ballet in her middle age has been therapeutic for her problematic hips–affording her a “deep stretch” that other exercise could not achieve. “Ballet is a wonderful complement to my weekly exercise,” she said.
Lind has seen firsthand the all-encompassing benefits of dance in her life. “Ballet is good for my posture, my strength, my flexibility my focus and my peace of mind. It keeps my feeling younger and happier. And I love the camaraderie with my fellow dancers,” she said. “My life often seems too busy for ballet, and then I remind myself, I cannot imagine my life without ballet.
So I pack my ballet bag and head out the door.” Narragansett resident and Lind’s classmate Ann Zarrella did not begin dancing until she was 62, but like Lind, she has come to love the mind-body connection that dance enhances. “I had taken a yoga class, but it was not the right fit,” said Zarrella. “I called The Studio and told Marilyn I had absolutely no ballet experience.
She encouraged me to try the class. I was hooked.” Zarrella, who will turn 80 next month, believes that ballet gives her a complete workout. “We all know how important movement is to help slow the aging process,” she said.
“The Studio has provided a wonderful outlet for expressing my love of classical music,” said Zarrella. “The experience of meeting wonderful people is frosting on the cake. Marilyn is an outstanding dancer, teacher and an inspiration to those of us who are relatively new to the art form.” Smayda is humble about her studio’s appeal. “We have wonderful teachers and the students work hard,” said Smayda.
She is proud that her studio still promotes classical ballet in an era where many facilities have turned solely to competitive dance. “We take dance seriously. I think adults are drawn to teachers who have a passion and respect for what they’re teaching,” said Smayda, who jumps, pirouettes and stretches with the agility and flexibility of someone half her age. Although The Studio still offers a handful of classes to young children, its mainstay is the older student. “It’s technique, music, conditioning for the whole body, mental therapy, a support group…it’s tough and it’s fun,” said Smayda. “Ballet has everything.
I love all parts of it. And I don’t plan to stop now. I need this.”
The Studio offers ballet, pointe, tap, jazz and fitness classes for dancers of all levels.