Karen Smith is stretching in a studio at the Marblehead School of Ballet while founder and teacher Paula K. Shiff gently places her hands on Smith’s leg and shoulder to emphasize proper form.
“Paula is a master teacher,” said Smith, who is recovering from a back injury. “She addresses alignment, body mechanics and coordination.”
In addition to these one-on-one stretch and strength lessons, Smith has taken ballet and jazz classes at MSB for years.
“Paula makes everything so accessible, whether you’re a beautiful teenage ballerina, a middle age woman with injuries or an older person,” Smith said.
MSB, on Pleasant Street next to the Warwick Theatre, is celebrating its 50th year.
”I always wanted to pass on my passion for dance and my love of music and art,” Shiff said during a recent interview in one of her dance studios with wooden floors, ballet barres, large windows and fans.
Thousands of students, from preschoolers to octogenarians, have taken classes at MSB, with many going on to professional careers in dance.
Shiff started dancing at 4 years old. She hasn’t stopped since. She grew up in Marblehead and studied in New York City and with the Boston Ballet, where she also danced professionally.
When a family matter brought Shiff back to Marblehead, the founder of the Boston Ballet School encouraged her to open her own school here.
“I really wanted a studio that offered a high-quality education for aspiring professionals and dance lovers, teaching good alignment, proper body mechanics and musicality,” Shiff said.
Rather than just teaching dance steps, she regularly partners with physical therapists to educate her students about anatomy and injury prevention. She incorporates lessons in dance history and music theory, too.
In addition to dancers, Shiff works with young athletes — soccer players, ice skaters, etc. — teaching them ballet and body mechanics to improve their abilities.
Fifty years in, Shiff is still working nonstop. In fact, she recently taught a month-long summer intensive program with 14-hour days.
Judy Moynihan, of Swampscott, has been dancing at MSB since 1975. Now 80 years old, she still takes two ballet classes and a stretch-and-strength class every week.
“I was just floored when I first took a class with Paula,” Moynihan remembered. “I came home speechless. She is so talented. She notices everyone.”
Throughout the decades, Shiff has suffered several challenges, including losses in her family. Then, in 2020, COVID hit.
“The pandemic killed our plans for a big 50th celebration,” she said. “But there has been a silver lining.”
That silver lining came when Shiff pivoted to teaching her classes online.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I learned how to choreograph for people dancing in their homes. ‘Hold onto your kitchen sink. Put some baking soda on the floor because you’re sticking.’ People started creating mini-studios in their homes.”
Many of Shiff’s students drive 90 minutes or more to attend her classes, so when lessons moved online and didn’t require the commute, people signed up for even more.
MSB reopened in June of 2021 with hybrid classes — live in the studio and broadcast on Zoom.
“Now I have students and teachers from around the country,” Shiff said proudly. “Art struggles, but it always survives.”
For her students, Shiff is more than just a teacher. She’s a role model and friend. Moynihan plans to keep dancing with her indefinitely.
“I’m getting older, but I have no intention of stopping,” she said. “What would I do without her?”
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.