by Lex Thomas
From her high school years, when she travelled to Boston several times each week from her home in Worcester to take classes at the Boston Ballet, Paula Meola dreamed of having a performing arts school of her own. She knew when she was barely more than a toddler, that dance was going to be her life, and that she would eventually impart her skill, training, discipline, technique, and love for the art of dance, to others.
In 2002, Meola purchased her school on Leominster Road in Sterling from its previous owner who became ill. Today, Meola has almost 400 students and countless alumni. She offers a broad range of performing arts training, including all styles of dance, music, and acting, and is about to stage the school’s 14th production of perennial holiday favorite The Nutcracker.
Meola’s exposure to dance began early. Her father’s cousin was a ballet teacher in Worcester, where she grew up. The family’s three daughters all took lessons, but her sisters eventually gave it up. “I stayed with it,” she says. “I just knew it was something I had to do. I loved everything about it, and it became a huge part of my life very early on.”
Although she has studied many styles of dance, ballet is, and has always been, her passion. She credits her parents for providing her with the best training they could find.
“At the time, there really were no dance schools that had a strong ballet program,” she says. “The best was the Boston Ballet, so that’s where I went.”
Meola studied with the legendary teachers Virginia Williams and Sydney Leonard, whom she describes as being driven by compassion. “Virginia shaped me as a dancer,” she says. Among her fondest memories are several years performing in the cast of Boston Ballet’s productions of The Nutcracker.
By the time she reached college age, Meola knew she wanted to dance, but there were few options for advanced ballet training.
“I just wanted to go to New York City,” she recalls. “But I learned pretty quickly that dancing for a company wasn’t in my future. I didn’t have the right height or physique. But I knew I was a good dancer. I always paid attention to technique and to the nuances of dance.”
Determined to continue learning everything she could about ballet, Meola enrolled in the dance program at Butler University in Indianapolis, one of the strongest in the country.
“From the moment I got there, I knew I was at home,” she says. “I loved it. It was amazing. I danced with Butler Ballet all four years I was there. The class of dancers I graduated with was exceptional. Everyone excelled. I was very lucky to be a part of that.”
In addition to her background in the arts, Meola hails from a formidable family of business owners and entrepreneurs, which she says has helped her in starting up and running her own business.
“I guess you could say it’s in my blood,” she says. “I grew up surrounded by business talk, and knowing what it means to be self-employed. I learned early on that it’s not enough to just be an artist. I have to be a business person as well. I’m constantly mentally and emotionally changing gears.” Meola says she relies on her family, including daughter Alie Robbie who is active in running the school and studio with her, for strength, advice, and practical help, such as building stage sets, loading and unloading equipment, and selling tickets to her productions. “This really is a family commitment,” she says.
Meola has brought her commitment to training excellence into her school. She employs a team of teachers, so that she can get specialists in each dance genre.
“A lot of schools have just one or two teachers that teach everything,” she says. “But that’s not really how it works. Some teachers are terrific at ballet, while others specialize in tap and jazz, and others are experts at hip hop. I try to find the best people I can for each style.”
She also invites guest teachers from New York, Los Angeles, Canada, and other places, throughout the year to conduct master classes or choreograph productions. She believes it’s important for young dancers to have as much exposure as possible to different dancing and teaching styles during their formative years.
Meola’s students are girls and boys ranging from 2.3 to 18 years of age. Along with her commitment to rigorous training, she also believes that the experience needs to be fun.
“Although I’m proud that a lot of our kids end up in dance careers, that’s not the end goal for me,” she says. “Most of all, I want this to be fun for them. I want them to learn to love dance as much as I do.”
The annual production of The Nutcracker involves every child in the school, and students take a Disney trip every two years. The yearly Halloween party is a favorite with students, and Meola runs “try a new class for a month for free” programs to encourage students to try something new and different.
“For me, the best reward is when the dancers graduate and move out into the world with confidence and a strong sense of self-esteem,” Meola says. “That’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Paula Meola Dance Studio is located at 50 Leominster Road, Sterling. For more information, call 978-422-6989 or visit paulameoladance.com.
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