Shari Smigo, owner and Director of Mid Shore Dance Academy (MSDA), hadn’t really considered owning a dance studio. She had taken ballet classes as a youngster and danced through high school and college. She even danced while working full-time. But then kids came along, and dancing and family became too much of a balancing act. Suddenly, the idea of having a dance studio began to make sense. It was something she could do during the evenings when her husband was home and could be with their four kids.
So Mrs. Shari (as she is known at her school) chose a safe way to start by teaching at the Academy Art Museum, where there would be no overhead or rent for her to worry about. But 13 years ago, after outgrowing the space, she took the plunge and opened a location in Easton. At the time, she was the only teacher to the thirty kids attending the school.
As the business grew, she added additional instructors, more studio space, and even a new location in Centreville. She still considers expanding, but not without the proper staff. “Here’s the thing,” says Mrs. Shari, “I limit myself because of the caliber of stock of instructor that I prefer to have. I want them to have more than, ‘Oh, I took ballet once a week until eighth grade, and I’m now ready to teach.’” She’s proud that her teachers have a mix of pre-professional/university training and professional performance experience; even prouder, some are former students, including one of her daughters. “Some have done great things,” she said. “such as dancing with the Washington and Joffrey Ballet. Many dancers have continued their dance training at various prestigious universities, including both of my daughters.”
The caliber of instructors is only one of the reasons why MSDA is successful. The studios offer a variety of options to dancers from 2 ½ years of age and up in Ballet, Pointe, Tap, Hip Hop, Contemporary, and Jazz. But it is ballet that is the basis of all they do. “I believe in that classical foundation, although we teach a broad range of things,” says Smigo. We are aware that not everybody wants to be a ballerina, they may love to dance, but ballet may not move fast enough for them.”
Whatever the format, all this dancing is really good for a child’s mental and physical development. It is why performing arts is at the top of every list of the best extracurricular activity for a child or a teen. It also builds self-confidence and creates lifelong friendships, added Mrs. Shari. “I think the biggest thing I see with those that have been together for a long time is that they grow, function, and work as a group. If one person doesn’t get a particular step or choreography, somebody else does. So they start to share a brain, for lack of a better word. It’s one of the neatest things to watch them grow into these cohesive groups.”
COVID, of course, put a pause to that development. “We’ve definitely seen a difference in the kids,” she said. “They didn’t have the opportunity to learn or practice for a while, and they lost some of those skills. Children benefit greatly from being engaged in a group activity, goal setting, and teamwork. Something we missed during the pandemic. It’s a relief to be together again.”
However, some changes instituted during the COVID restrictions have been kept. Before the pandemic, MSDA had a couple of observation weeks where parents could come in and watch their children practice in the studio. It would get very crowded, and with COVID, this no longer was appropriate. So now, the studio live streams the classes in the waiting room while parents wait. It’s turned out to be beneficial for both parents and their children. “It’s good for the younger kids,” says Mrs. Shari, “who may be a little unsure. So we tell them, ‘Mommy’s right out there and seeing you,’ and it gives them that little confidence boost. Then for the ones that may not be paying attention in class, it’s also a reminder that Mommy’s watching them. Of course, for the parents, it gives them an understanding of the formal dance world that not everyone gets to see.”
Embracing technology appeals to–what Mrs. Shari calls–her tech geek side. One area where she says she ‘gets lost for days’ is music selection from streaming services. Dance studios years ago would hire a pianist who would play a melody with the appropriate tempo to go with the exercise during classes. There is a certain nostalgia for dancers who were part of the live music generation.
“Every once in a while, when I take a workshop, and they use live music, my heart just sings, and I grin like the village idiot the whole time. Yeah, I miss live music. But we’ve gone from records, cassette tapes, and CDs to services like Spotify, which will give me anything I want. If I’m looking for music that goes with pirouettes (turns across the floor), there will be a long list of options, and I spend hours listening to pop tunes or musicals that have been transcribed–I guess that’s the best word–into a dance class format.”
So for those interested in the available programs, most classes are offered in four 8-week sessions, culminating in a June recital. They also do a showcase for family and friends and a smaller holiday show with the performance company students (who are selected through an audition process). However, depending on how COVID will be in the fall, she hopes to expand that to a larger group of dancers. The troupe is open to performing at other opportunities as well.
If all of this seems like fun, it is. It’s difficult not to feel the passion for dancing evident when Mrs. Shari speaks about “her” kids and her commitment to their development as dancers. But it’s more than that. She also hopes to instill in them a lifelong appreciation for the arts. “I am so lucky,” she says, that I get to do what I love. I love to teach, and I love to work with the kids. I love all of those aspects of it.”
For additional info: https://www.midshoredance.org
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.