Celebrated Broadway performer Karen Marie Pisani and Marblehead School of Ballet director Paula K. Shiff discuss their upcoming Theater Arts Week, the joys of teaching, and the benefits of dance.
Big city talent will be coming to Marblehead School of Ballet in the form of Karen Marie Pisani, an esteemed Broadway performer, dancer and choreographer. Her accolades include 32 years of choreographing experience, dance captain and performer for National Touring Company A Chorus Line, and dancer in Fiddler on the Roof, Dames at Sea, and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off!, to name a few. She will share her talents with the dance studio as Musical Theater Artistic Director for Theater Arts Week. This program teaches 12- to 17-year-olds to become “triple threats”—successful dancers, actors, and singers. By the week’s end, the students will perform a section of a Broadway show together.
On the first day of Theater Arts Week, students of all abilities will be assessed by Pisani. Years of teaching experience, and a Masters in Education, give Pisani the ability to intuit each student’s skill level—before the class even begins. “You begin to asses who they are, how they move, which ones are more confident in their bodies, which ones are more confident in speaking, who wants to sing,” describes Pisani. Some students have been dancing their whole life, while others are just beginning their education in performing arts. Because these students come from a diverse range of performing backgrounds, the program must accommodate for these needs.
This focus on individuality, and attention given to every dancer is what makes Marblehead School of Ballet so unique, says Paula K. Shiff, director of MSB. “We take into consideration what their short terms goals are, what their long term goals are, and try to help them meet those needs,” Shiff says. “We want to really give everyone the most positive educational experience they can have. It doesn’t matter whether they dance once a week, or if they dance every day; whether they want to dance as a hobby or if they want to aspire for a career. They all deserve the best. Our goal is to give them the best.”
Shiff and Pisani’s dedication to helping every student shine pays off in spades. For Pisani, the most rewarding part of teaching is the look in her students’ eyes when they finally master a skill. “Those bright eyes when [my students] ‘get it’, when they are confident, you see confidence come out, and most importantly, when they can then go to a student or a friend and teach them something, you know they’ve really got it at that point.” Applause after a performance rewards students for the hours of hard work spent perfecting their craft. “As the teacher or choreographer, I like to see the smile of the performer accepting that applause,” Pisani beams. To her, this is the greatest joy of mentoring.
While ballet and Broadway might seem like two separate worlds, they could not be more intertwined. Principles of ballet permeate through every art form, and calls attention to details like a performer’s posture and facial expressions. The sheer amount of discipline needed to become a successful ballet dancer provides a strong foundation for any art form. “In dancing, the more disciplined you are, the freer you are, “ Shiff explains. “So when you are disciplined emotionally, intellectually, physically, then you are free. Then you can dance with abandonment, you can do anything with abandonment. The skills you learn through dance are life skills.”
Another invaluable lesson taught through the art of dance is learning to be in tune with your body. “The joy of knowing your body, feeling your body, is incredibly special,” Shiff says. “I think everyone deserves that right and that privilege.” Dance students will enjoy this benefit no matter where the future takes them.
Thanks to the triple-threat structure of the program, students will become more well-rounded performers. But Pisani hopes that her protégés will acquire a fourth skill during Theater Arts Week: self-knowledge. Working cohesively with relative strangers to perform a Broadway show encourages both professional and personal growth. “Be prepared to explore all your abilities, all of your theatrical abilities, be prepared to learn a lot about yourself that week,” she advises. For aspiring performers, Pisani offers a few words of wisdom: “Enjoy every moment!”