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Petaluma dance teacher, 87, guides students in 'Nutcracker'

Marcella Contessi-Smith danced on stage for the first time at the age of 9 in Florence, Italy, where she was born and raised. What she didn’t learn from her Italian teachers she learned from Kyra Nijinsky, the renowned Russian-born ballerina. Now 87, Contessi-Smith still dances gracefully. She also teaches dance at her studio, the North Bay Performing Arts Center and Contessi Ballet, in Petaluma.

On a Saturday in November, three weeks before the opening performance of “The Nutcracker” - everyone’s favorite holiday ballet - she put 40 or so dancers through a demanding rehearsal. Dressed in black with her hair in a neat bun, she seemed as poised as anyone in the room.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” she counted as she faced the wall-length mirror, moved to Tchaikovsky’s music and invited the class to mimic her gestures. The students, many of whom are mothers and daughters, adore her. It’s easy to see why. Aged three to 65 or so, the dancers, like Ariana Mitchell, Violet Wang, Donna Novotny, Francesca Bolla and Analise Ciolipo, listen spellbound to the stories she tells in English with an Italian accent.

A consummate professional and an exacting teacher, Contessi-Smith loves ballet.

“Dancing has always been my life,” she said. “When students first arrive, I tell them to take ballet as their life. What I want them to learn is discipline and the pleasure of music through movement.”

She was 7½ years old when she first began to study dance. Contessi-Smith has never allowed anything or anyone to stand in the way of ballet, though it wasn’t love at first sight.

“When my mother enrolled me in dance school in Florence, I didn’t feel like being a dancer,” she said. “But from the moment that I was on stage and heard the applause I knew I wanted to be a ballerina.”

As a girl, she danced through the dark days of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. With genuine pride, she tells students how she aided the anti-fascist cause by carrying messages to the underground and by transporting guns to partisans in the mountains.

After World War II, she immigrated to the United States, lived in Kentucky briefly, moved to San Francisco, married Gary Smith and settled in Petaluma. Students call her “Mrs. Smith” and, while they mean to be respectful, the name doesn’t seem to fit her feisty personality and relaxed sense of humor. When asked if her husband liked ballet she laughed and replied, “He better!”

Thousands of students have filed in and out of her studio. Hundreds have appeared in “The Nutcracker” ever since 1980 when she first staged the ballet that features a young girl, her Prince Charming, gingerbread soldiers, a mouse king and more. She hasn’t ever danced in “The Nutcracker” herself, but she has choreographed it.

“Before I started the choreography, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s music over and over again for months,” she said. “It’s very challenging.”

Noelle Brennan, 27, a message therapist, began to dance with Contessi-Smith at 14. She plays the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker.” “Dancing makes me happy,” she said.

Ignacio Gonzales, 41, one of only two men in the company, has been dancing since he was 15. “I love to be on stage,” he said. “The perseverance is worth it.”

Nella Papadin, 59, a long-time student, said of Contessi-Smith, “She not only teaches us, she imparts the spirit of dance.”

HOLIDAY FAVORITE

What: ‘The Nutcracker”

When: Saturday 7 p.m.; Nov. 29, 2 p.m.

Where: Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5490 Snyder Lane

Tickets: $15 children 10 and under; $20 student with ID and seniors 65 and above; adults $25, plus $2.00 ticket and facility fee.

Information: Tickets, 588-3400; ror more formation and group discounts, 338-1013.

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